By ROBIN McDOWELL / AP WRITER
JAKARTA — Parliamentary elections in the world's third-largest democracy this week will help determine whether Indonesia's reform-minded president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, will coast into a second term or face a prolonged fight for power.
After weeks of colorful and largely peaceful campaigning, voters across the predominantly Islamic nation of 235 million will cast ballots Thursday for the 560-member legislature.
A party or coalition that wins a fifth of the seats—or 25 percent of the popular vote—can nominate a candidate to compete in presidential elections on July 8.
But with 38 parties in the running and a huge number of undecided voters, analysts are quick to note there is a lot of room for uncertainty.
"Yudhoyono is the strongest candidate so far, but much is lying on these elections," said Anies Baswedan, a senior researcher at Indonesian Survey Institute, which released a public opinion poll Monday predicting the president's Democratic Party would win 26 percent of the popular vote.
The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle headed by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri was forecast to come in second with around 14 percent, and Golkar—the party of the former dictatorship—third with 13 percent. The survey, based on interviews with 2,486 people, had a margin of error of 2.3 percent.
Indonesia, a vast tropical archipelago of 17,000 islands, emerged a decade ago from the 32-year Suharto dictatorship.
Yudhoyono, who helped bring stability after Suharto's fall in 1998, became the first directly elected leader in 2004 and is seeking another five-year term. If no candidate wins a 50 percent majority, a run-off presidential election will be held on Sept. 8.
Many of the 11,000 candidates vying for seats in the national parliament—and another 1.5 million for seats in provincial and local councils—have similar platforms.
Security—a key campaign issue in 2004—has taken a back seat to the flagging economy and corruption, largely because Indonesia hasn't been hit by an al-Qaida-linked terrorist attack for almost four years.
Fighting has ended in Aceh province, where 15,000 people died in a 29-year civil war, after a peace agreement was signed in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people, half of them in Indonesia.
Aceh will be closely watched Thursday, however, because it's one of the few places hit by violence before the vote with at least five rebel-turned-politicians gunned down.
One major issue being followed will be the role of Islamic parties in politics in the secular nation.
The popularity of the Prosperous Justice Party—which surprised observers during the last elections in 2004, scooping up 7 percent of the vote—appears to be diminishing, analysts say, partly because hard-liners have tried to push through unpopular laws regulating everything from women's dress and behavior to smoking.
"They appear to have lost their momentum," Dede Oetomo, a political analyst with the Airlangga University in the city of Surabaya. "Either they have misread Indonesians or gone beyond the limit of what most people consider to be acceptable."
"Women especially are afraid," he said. "They don't want to be discriminated against because of religion."
There are 171 million registered voters—trailing only India and the United States in electoral size—and turnout is expected to be high.
Many will likely pick a personality over political affiliation.
That's good news for Yudhoyono, whose party won just 7 percent last time around. He enjoys wide popularity despite high unemployment and food shortages that hit tens of millions of families living below the poverty line.
His administration is credited with improving security—hundreds of terror suspects have been arrested and thrown in jail since the retired army general took office five years ago. He also won points for several high-profile corruption cases against senior government officials.
Other top contenders for the presidency are Vice President Jusuf Kalla, a senior figure in Golkar and Megawati, who is the daughter of the country's founding father, Sukarno.
Prabowo Subianto, an ex-army general and former son-in-law of Suharto, is getting attention even though he lost his job as head of the Special Forces in 1998 for allegedly kidnapping student activists during years of political upheaval, something he denies.
"Yudhoyono has to watch out for Subianto," who has pumped millions of dollars into television commercials recasting himself as a champion of the poor, said Ikar Nusabhakti, an analyst with the Indonesian Science Institute. "He's really the dark horse here."