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 9 Apr 2009

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Indonesians began voting Thursday in parliamentary elections that could determine if President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will have enough support to win a second five-year term needed to push through aggressive economic and institutional reforms. The vote will also test the role of Islamic parties in politics, reported the Associated Press.

Violence flared hours before the first polling stations opened in the easternmost province of Papua, the scene of a decades-long insurgency, killing at least six people, said local police chief Maj. Gen. Bagus Ekodanto.

But by midmorning the situation appeared calm, with long lines forming as people waited to cast ballots.

The vote for a new 560-member legislature is being closely watched because it will determine who will qualify to run for president in July.

Parties or coalitions that win a fifth of the seats - or 25 percent of the popular vote - can nominate a candidate for that race.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democrat Party is expected to come out on top, but with more than 171 million eligible voters and dozens of parties to choose from, nothing is certain.

Second-time voter Rivaldi Aswin, a 25-year-old bank employee, was confused casting four votes for municipal, provincial and national candidates, most of whom he didn't know.

"It is very complicated this time. There were too many ballot papers and we didn't recognise the faces or candidates," he said in the capital, Jakarta. He declined to say who he picked.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, emerged from 32 years of dictatorship when Gen. Suharto was swept from power in 1998, leading to reforms that freed the media, struck down repressive laws and for the first time allowed citizens to vote for president.

It has since become a relatively stable democracy compared to many of its Asian neighbors, despite some concerns about vote-rigging, fraud and tensions in far-flung provinces like Papua in the east and Aceh in the west.

If Yudhoyono's party wins 26 percent of the popular vote, as some opinion polls predict, he will not have to cobble together an alliance with others seen to be less willing to tackle corruption, overhaul the judiciary and streamline bureaucracy.

"At this moment, it looks like he's going to make it," said Dede Oetomo, a political analyst from Airlangga University in the city of Surabaya.

Last time around, the Democrats won just 7 percent of the vote, forcing Yudhoyono, eventually, to partner up with Suharto's Golkar and a handful of Islamic parties that tried to push through laws governing everything from the way women dressed to the types of magazines that could be hawked on street corners.

Analysts say these elections could see the popularity of religious parties, which did well in 2004, waning. Most of the secular country's 210 million Muslims practice a moderate form of the faith.

"As long as these parties try to push through Islamic-based laws, they are going to keep losing support," said Syafiie Maarif, an Islamic scholar. "They need to come up with a broader, policy-based platform, like fighting poverty."

Campaigns across the board were largely personality driven and policies have been broad and ill-defined, focusing on issues like the effect the global slowdown has had on the economy or the need to root out pervasive corruption.

Unlike 2004, security is no longer a big issue, something many credit to Yudhoyono.

Indonesia was last hit by an al-Qaida-linked terrorist attack four years ago and, thanks to a 2005 peace deal, guns have largely fallen silent in formerly war-torn Aceh province, on the country's northwestern tip.

Tensions there and in Papua were high after a series of fatal shootings in recent months, but few expect the situation to spiral out of control.

The Indonesian Survey Institute poll indicated that the Democratic Party would win 26 percent of the popular vote; the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle headed by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri 14 percent; and Golkar 13 percent. The four Islamic-based parties each came in at around 4 percent. The survey, based on interviews with 2,486 people, had a margin of error of 2.3 percent.




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