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Election marks Indonesian democracy's wobbly advance

The world's most populous Muslim country goes to the polls Thursday for the third time since 1998. Campaigning went smoothly, though old elites, corruption still thrive.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 2009

Jakarta, Indonesia

Voters in the world's most populous Muslim country go to the polls Thursday to elect a new parliament, the third chosen freely since the restoration of democracy in 1998. Across hundreds of islands infused with multiple faiths, cultures, and languages, 171 million people are eligible to vote at more than half a million polling stations.

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Logistical snafus are weighing on election officials, as well as allegations of inflated voter rolls. A three-week campaign that ended Sunday generated more heat than light, as most parties offered feel-good platitudes rather than policies. Observers say apathy may hold down the turnout, not helped by a complex ballot that is organized by candidates, not parties.

Amid the muddle and the mud slinging, there is pride in the consolidation of a democracy that is already among the freest in Asia. Some voters are weary, though, of campaigns that promise more than they deliver.

"For the first few years after 1998, people had hope. After that, it's just become fighting between parties, and that's a turnoff," says Frans Darmadi, who runs a construction company in East Java.

However, the drifting attention of voters this time may actually be a sign of maturity, says Kevin O'Rourke, a political analyst in Jakarta. "The overall temperature of this election is way down compared to 2004 and especially 1999. It shows that democracy is here to stay. People don't see it as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go out and vote," he says.

Unlike Pakistan, Islamist militants here have failed to loosen the grip of Indonesia's secular centers of power, despite a wave of Al Qaeda-inspired bombings after 2000. After their upswing in the 2004 elections, Muslim-oriented parties have struggled to broaden their base and are falling behind in the polls.

Teeing up for presidential election

Indonesian voters are electing local and provincial legislatures. But the main prize for parties is the share of seats in the 560-seat national Parliament. The outcome will tee up a presidential election in July that is considered President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's to lose, given his popularity.

Presidential candidates must secure the nomination of a bloc of 20 percent of seats in Parliament, or 25 percent of the popular vote. In 2004, Mr. Yudhoyono's Democrat Party won only 7.5 percent of the seats and had to build a broad coalition that analysts say tempered his reform agenda. Opinion polls indicate that the Democrat Party likely will win the largest share in the new Parliament, giving it a freer hand to dictate terms on a presidential ticket and to push through new laws.