Third-largest democracy's next step: Choose leader

Yesterday's vote for a parliament came a year after riots ended decades

"I could barely sleep last night, thinking about today," says Rominah, clutching a white ballot ticket that allows her to vote in Indonesia's first free election in 44 years. "I know there may be problems ahead, but finally, I feel free."

Freedom has been decades in coming to Indonesia, and it is still far from assured, but millions of people lined up yesterday to enter rickety wooden voting booths and take their country into a new era.

Since Indonesia's Dutch colonizers left over 50 years ago, the scattered archipelago has had only one brush with democracy and decades of one-man rule. If its transition from one-man rule succeeds, it would make Indonesia the world's third-largest democracy. The experiment will be closely watched in Asia, where many leaders have argued authoritarian leadership is a more appropriate political model for the region.

The transition began in May 1998 when former President Suharto stepped down after widespread rioting that left hundreds dead, including Rominah's young son. It will continue as parties form coalitions and choose a president in November. Voting was relatively peaceful, despite some reports of violations. But analysts warn of potential unrest in the days and months ahead.

Many parties have forecast overly optimistic results, raising voter expectations and the possibility of a backlash. The structure of the political process also makes it vulnerable to manipulation. Even if all remains calm, Indonesians will have to adjust as high expectations born of political inexperience smack up against the Realpolitik of a working democracy.

"The real problems are coming," says political analyst Salim Said in Jakarta. "Some parties may not be able to accept they didn't do as well as they expected. But then, we were pessimistic that the campaign would lead to a lot of bloodshed, and it's been fine."

Election day celebrated

The atmosphere yesterday was almost carnival-like, as children cavorted in streets and neighbors socialized at polling stations. Like many Indonesians, Rominah gave little thought to politics before Asia's economic crisis triggered angry riots across Indonesia last year. She was politicized by her son's death and the destruction in her neighborhood, and now belongs to one of the hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that sprang up in the last year.

Rominah went to her local polling station - crowded with voters waiting on rows of folding chairs, a few tables, and two wooden voting booths screened by dusty blue curtains - to support the Democratic Party of Struggle. Suharto tried to sideline the party and its leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, a factor in her immense popularity today.

On finishing, Rominah dipped her forefinger into a bottle of ink to indicate she'd cast her ballot. Her husband, Subianto, says his blue fingertip indicates a vote for the ruling Golkar Party, which might do well despite its ties to Suharto.

Like all state employees, Subianto (many Indonesians use only one name) was obliged to support Golkar under Suharto. The state still pays his paycheck as a transportation worker, and since it has long been indistinguishable from Golkar, he says he feels he owes the party his livelihood. "We don't talk about politics, it's better for our marriage," snorts Rominah, petite in purple pants and flip-flops. "Golkar belongs in the trash."

Members of her NGO are monitoring the election, along with more than 300,000 other local and foreign observers. The presence of Asian, European, and American monitors is testament to Indonesia's strategic importance. An OPEC member with the world's largest Muslim population, it lies across shipping lanes that are crucial to Japan and the US.

Former US President Jimmy Carter came with observers from the Atlanta-based Carter Center and a convoy of reporters to watch polls open yesterday morning. Standing in a soft drizzle at a polling station on a soccer field, a smiling Mr. Carter watched local officials unlock ballot boxes, then hold them high for waiting families to see.

"[The Carter Center] has monitored some 30 elections" around the world, he told reporters in his molasses-like drawl. "This is the most complicated procedure I've ever seen."

Voters cast ballots for national, provincial, and local seats, which parties will be able to trade. The national elections are for a new parliament, which will choose the new president. Analysts say the wait until then could be perilous.

The long time lag was never a problem when the outcome was foreordained under Suharto, but now it presents opportunities for vote buying, says Adam Schwartz, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. "The system is vulnerable to money politics between the bookends of the [parliamentary] and [presidential] elections," says Mr. Schwartz.

Months of coalition building

In addition, because no party in the field of 48 is expected to gain more than 20 to 30 percent, the next few months will see intense coalition-building that could again alter the political landscape. "The results of [yesterday's] election will probably reflect the will of the people," says Schwartz, who adds that the political landscape in November might not.

The capital's streets were largely empty yesterday, and at a fountain where thousands of demonstrators rallied during the campaign, the placid waters reflected only cloudy sky. "It hasn't been interesting at all," says Alex Irwan, of the Social Monitoring and Early Response Unit, a World Bank-backed group in Jakarta. "We're relieved!" he laughs. "But in some ways not surprised. People approached today as a celebration."

Officials wanted all votes counted by yesterday evening to reduce chances of vote fraud, and counting began after polls closed at 2 p.m. As people looked on and children played at their feet, local officials pulled ballots out of boxes and read each vote out loud to cheers, groans, and exclamations of surprise.

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