Indonesians kept waiting for election result

Suspicions of fraud taint a historic election before there's evidence,raising expectations for protests.

The drumbeat of complaint is growing louder as Indonesia continues its plodding count of votes cast in the June 7 parliamentary election. The risk is that it could drown out all other voices.

Three days after the polls closed, the Election Commission has tallied only 8 percent of the ballots. As time stretches on, there is increasing worry the delay will undermine the credibility of this historic vote, even if it was largely clean.

There is reason to be wary. There were many small violations in the voting process and potential for vote manipulation, monitors say. Many groups are helping local officials counter these problems.

But as the chorus of suspicion rises, observers warn that cynicism and fear may lead to violent protest, robbing Indonesia of a successful election even if corruption doesn't. "The stakes are too high to get people alarmed unnecessarily, "says Mary Schwartz, Indonesia program director at the International Republican Institute (IRI).

But this is a country that loves conspiracy theories. Opposition parties mutter about possible cheating, and election observers voice "grave concern" - though admit, when pressed, they know about irregularities at only two out of some 300,000 polling stations.

Media, primed for rioting that never came, have played up the suspicions - increasing the possibility that voters will protest the delay.

But diplomats and election observers stress there are valid reasons for the tortoise-like progress. Chief among them is inexperience. Indonesia hasn't had a free election in more than 40 years, the field of political parties has exploded from three to 48, and there are huge logistical challenges. Some remote polling stations haven't even received ballots yet.

Impact beyond Indonesia

While Indonesia needs stability to bring investors back to its tattered economy, the impact of a smooth transition to democracy - or a conflagration - will be felt beyond its 13,000 islands. The US will be alert for any trouble that could affect American investment here, or the area's strategic shipping lines.

Asia is watching closely, particularly Malaysia, which will soon hold its own election. "This will impact Asian nations looking to see if democratic elections can work here," says Evelyn Serrano, of the Asian Network for Free Elections in Bangkok. "It's crucial."

The IRI is among many organizations helping to plow through an estimated 113 million votes. They have sent staff to areas including Sulawesi, the island President B.J. Habibie calls home, to check on discrepancies.

Mistakes, but no fraud yet seen

"We've not found any evidence of fraud," says Ms. Schwartz. "We have, however, found irregularities and seen miscalculations on part of election officials. We're really urging the [opposition] parties in particular to stay on top of this all the way through."

But Indonesia is using an enormously complicated election structure, making that difficult. Officials originally predicted 50 percent of the votes would be counted by the next day. The Election Commission now says they'll be done sometime next week.

One problem is that votes are counted seven times. At one stage in the count, results are faxed to a media center in Jakarta. At the next stage in the count, officials send votes to the Election Commission.

Differences in these two vote counts are giving rise to most of the suspicion. "The two streams are markedly different," says a Western diplomat. And they show gains for the ruling Golkar Party, long associated with the corrupt rule of former president Suharto.

Ms. Serrano says the bureaucratic structure Mr. Suharto built over 32 years is still in place, and that it would be very easy for the totals to be altered as they are entered into computers. "It's a very dangerous situation," she says. "We suspect some doctoring is going on."

It will be hard to tell for sure, as local and foreign groups have eased their scrutiny since voting day. "We're not sure if people are following through to the next phase," says a Western diplomat. "If closer attention were being paid, people could confirm problems, if they're taking place, [and] dispel rumors too."

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