JAKARTA, Indonesia – Parliamentary elections Thursday could determine if President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will have enough support to win a second five-year term needed to push through aggressive economic and institutional reforms.
Violence flared hours before the first polling stations opened in the easternmost province of Papua, the scene of a decades-long insurgency, killing at least six people, said local police chief Maj. Gen. Bagus Ekodanto.
But by midmorning, the situation appeared calm, with voters forming long lines to cast ballots.
The outcome of Thursday's election for a new 560-member legislature is being closely watched because it will determine who will qualify to run for president in July.
The party or coalition that wins a fifth of the seats — or 25 percent of the popular vote — can nominate a candidate for that race.
Yudhoyono's Democrat Party is expected to come out on top, but with more than 170 million people registered to vote and 38 parties to choose from, nothing is certain. Other front-runners are the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle headed by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri and the largest party, Golkar.
Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, emerged from 32 years of dictatorship under Gen. Suharto in 1998, leading to reforms that freed the media, struck down repressive laws and, in 2004, allowed citizens to vote for president for the first time. It is often held up as a beacon of how Islam and democracy can go hand-in-hand.
If Yudhoyono's party wins 26 percent of the popular vote, as some opinion polls predict, he will not have to cobble together an alliance with others seen to be less willing to tackle corruption, overhaul the judiciary and streamline bureaucracy.
"At this moment it looks like he's going to make it," said Dede Oetomo, a political analyst from Airlangga University in the city of Surabaya.
Last time around, the Democrats won just 7 percent of the vote, forcing Yudhoyono, eventually, to partner up with Golkar and a handful of Islamic parties that tried to push through laws governing everything from the way women dressed to the types of magazines that could be hawked on street corners.
Analysts say these elections could see the popularity of religious parties, which did well in 2004, waning. Most of the secular country's 210 million Muslims practice a moderate form of the faith.
"As long as these parties try to push through Islamic-based laws, they are going to keep losing support," said Syafiie Maarif, an Islamic scholar. "They need to come up with a broader, policy-based platform, like fighting poverty."
Campaigns across the board were largely personality driven and policies have been broad and ill-defined, focusing on issues like the effect the global slowdown has had on the economy or the need to root out pervasive corruption.
Unlike 2004, security is no longer a big issue, something many credit to Yudhoyono.
Indonesia was last hit by an al-Qaida-linked terrorist attack four years ago and, thanks to a 2005 peace deal, guns have largely fallen silent in formerly war-torn Aceh province, on the country's northwestern tip.
Aceh and Papua are the only places that have been hit by pre-election violence, but it is not expected to spiral out of control.
Papuan police chief Maj. Gen. Bagus Ekodanto said more than 80 suspected rebels attacked a police post in the provincial capital, Jayapura, with machetes and spears at around 1 a.m. Thursday, leaving four dead in the clash that followed.
Elsewhere, he said, rebels who want Papua to break from Indonesia stabbed several motorcycle taxi drivers, burned an oil depot and property at a state university, leaving two others dead.
Voters, who had been told to boycott the vote, refused to be intimidated.
"I think everything should be solved in a peaceful way. That's why I'm out here today," said Leonard Tuilan.
In addition to a national parliament, elections were being held Thursday for a new provincial and local legislatures and councils.
The Indonesian Survey Institute poll showed the Democratic Party would win 26 percent of the popular vote; the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle 14 percent; and Golkar 13 percent. The four Islamic-based parties each came in at around 4 percent. The survey, based on interviews with 2,486 people, had a margin of error of 2.3 percent.