Indonesia enters new democratic era with presidential election

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Indonesians will choose a president for the first time in their nation's history today when up to 153 million people go to the polls.

Indonesians will choose a president for the first time in their nation's history today when up to 153 million people go to the polls.

The incumbent, Megawati Sukarnoputri, faces four rivals, including one of her former ministers, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in Indonesia's first direct presidential election. Opinion polls place Mr Yudhoyono well ahead of the pack. If he fails to win more than 50 per cent of the vote, he will fight the runner-up in a second round in November.

The former general has broad-based support in the world's most populous Muslim country, despite a whispering campaign claiming he is secretly a Christian. A separate rumour has him plotting to introduce sharia (Islamic law) if elected.

But religious issues and affiliations have been peripheral to the presidential race. Indonesia prides itself on its generally tolerant brand of Islam. Voters are also discarding traditional party loyalties in favour of candidates perceived to have leadership qualities and personal integrity. The freedom to choose their own leader was beyond Indonesians' wildest dreams during 32 years of repressive rule by the former dictator, President Suharto. He was forced to resign in 1998 by massive street demonstrations.

Since then, Indonesia has been led by three civilian presidents. None of them were effective leaders. But many observers believe that, in a country still emerging from authoritarianism, the practice of democracy is more important than the outcome.

"We are building an electoral system that will reinforce our democratic institutions," said Wimar Witoelar, an author and columnist. "In the past, elections were periods of oppression. Now they are a celebration of freedom."

Indonesians are keenly aware that they are writing a new page in their history. Even after Suharto fell, the president was elected by parliament. "For the first time, we can choose the leader we want," said Joan Henuhili, a public relations consultant.

Many voters still regard democracy as a mixed blessing, however. While they welcome such novelties as a free press, they hanker for the stability and relative prosperity of the Suharto era.

During the chaotic transition to democracy, Indonesia has been racked by sectarian conflict and separatist uprisings in Aceh and Papua. Freedom has spawned radical Islamist groups such as Jemaah Islamiya, which bombed two Bali nightclubs in 2002. Crime and unemployment have risen, along with prices. Corruption remains entrenched.

While the military's influence has waned, the armed forces are still not under effective political control. It was only recently that the military gave up its guaranteed block of seats in parliament.