JAKARTA: Indonesians went to the polls on Wednesday in parliamentary elections expected to boost the main opposition and move their popular presidential candidate, Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, a step closer to becoming the country’s next leader.
The first polling stations opened in Papua at 7:00 am (2200 GMT Tuesday) but difficulty in transporting ballot boxes to remote parts of the mountainous, eastern region meant there could be delays in some areas, officials said.
Voting began shortly afterwards in central Indonesia, which includes the main island of Java, and in the west of the huge archipelago — Southeast Asia’s biggest economy — which is spread over three time zones.
“I came here this morning to use my right to vote in the hope that under a new government the people of Indonesia can be prosperous and that wealth is fairly distributed,” said Theresia Novi, voting in Bekasi, outside the capital Jakarta.
“This is a democratic party I don’t want to miss,” the 38-year-old management consultant told AFP.
Wednesday’s polls also determine who can run at presidential elections in July and all eyes are on frontrunner Widodo and his main opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which is tipped to win the biggest share of the vote.
“I’m very confident my party will do very well,” said the 52-year-old governor, smiling broadly after voting near his official residence in Jakarta, as he was mobbed by a scrum of about 200 journalists.
Known by his nickname “Jokowi”, the governor is a fresh face in a country long dominated by aloof ex-military figures and tycoons from the three-decade rule of dictator Suharto.
The former furniture business owner has been a political phenomenon since his meteoric rise to the capital’s top job in 2012. His common touch — he regularly visits Jakarta’s slums in his trademark checked shirt — has won him a huge following.
Buoyed by his popularity, the PDI-P has long been ahead in opinion polls for the legislative elections, and the party extended its lead after nominating him for president last month.
Voters are expected to punish President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s ruling Democratic Party, however, with polls putting it in fourth place after a string of corruption scandals. It is currently the biggest party in parliament.
The problems in Papua, where officials said bad weather prevented planes transporting ballot boxes from reaching some mountainous districts, illustrated the huge logistical challenge of organising elections in an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands.
The polls are expected to be largely peaceful although there are fears of violence in western Aceh province, where a three-decade separatist insurgency only ended in 2005, after an upsurge in politically linked attacks.
The legislative elections are the fourth in Indonesia since the end of authoritarian rule under Suharto in 1998, and decide who can run at presidential polls on July 9.
A party or coalition of parties needs 20 percent of seats in the 560-seat lower house of parliament or 25 percent of the national vote to field a candidate.
The PDI-P is the only one out of 12 parties running nationwide seen as having a chance of achieving this on its own. Others will have to form coalitions to get over the threshold and nominate a candidate.
Despite the euphoria surrounding Widodo, who has been topping presidential opinion polls for months, he is likely to face formidable opposition in his run for head of state.
His main rival is seen as Prabowo Subianto, a former commander of the Indonesian army’s notorious special forces who has been accused of human rights abuses, although he lags far behind the governor in the polls.
Whoever replaces Yudhoyono — due to step down after 10 years in power — will inherit tremendous challenges, with economic growth slowing, religious intolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country on the rise and corruption endemic.
While the main focus is on the election at the national level, Indonesians will also be voting for lawmakers in provincial and district legislatures Wednesday.
Some 186 million voters are eligible, and around 230,000 candidates are competing nationwide for about 20,000 seats.
Unofficial tallies carried out by private pollsters, known as “quick counts”, are released several hours after polls close at 1:00 pm and are normally accurate. Official results are not expected until early May.
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