By ROBIN McDOWELL / AP WRITER
JAKARTA — Indonesians flooded polling stations across the sprawling island nation Thursday, capping a decade of democracy in a parliamentary election that will gauge the reform-minded president's chances of re-election.
Violence flared hours before the first voting booths opened in the easternmost province of Papua, the scene of a decades-long insurgency, killing five, said local police chief Maj-Gen Bagus Ekodanto.
But nationwide there were no other serious incidents, with long lines forming throughout the day to cast ballots for a new 560-member legislature before polls closed.
The vote 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 Democratic Party is expected to come out on top, but with more than 171 million eligible voters—many of them undecided—38 parties and thousands of candidates to choose from, nothing is certain.
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, vastly improved human rights, and for the first time allowed citizens to vote for president.
Despite some concerns about polling irregularities, religious intolerance and an ongoing ban on left-wing political activities, Indonesia has surprised many by turning into to one of the most stable democracies in the region. More than a half-million polling stations are spread out across thousands of islands.
"It's an enormous undertaking," said Paul Rowland of the US-based National Democratic Institute, noting that hundreds of thousands also will be contesting legislative seats at the provincial, municipal and regency level.
"It's the world's largest single-day election this year. We'll see more people voting for more positions than any other country."
Many voters were baffled by the myriad of choices, with hundreds of candidates sometimes listed on a poster-sized ballot.
"It's more complicated than last time," said Rivaldi Aswin, a 25-year-old bank employee who turned out with 300 others at a station west of the capital, Jakarta.
"I barely recognized any of the faces," he said after having his pinky dabbed with purple ink to keep people from repeat voting. "But I'm glad to have this opportunity."
If Yudhoyono's party wins more than 20 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.
During the last elections in 2004, the Democrats won just 7 percent of the vote, forcing Yudhoyono to partner up with Suharto's Golkar party and a handful of Islamic parties that pushed 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 waning popularity of religious parties—including the new, conservative Islamic Prosperous Justice Party, that scooped up 7.3 percent of the popular vote in 2004.
"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.
Early quick count results were trickling in Thursday.
With more than 50 percent of the vote counted, the Indonesian Survey Circle had Yudhoyono's Democratic Party in the lead with 21 percent; the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle headed by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, 15 percent; and Suharto's former political machine, Golkar, 15 percent.
The religious-based Islamic Prosperous Justice Party had 8 percent.