JAKARTA, Indonesia – Indonesians began casting votes Wednesday in this emerging democracy's second direct presidential election, in which the incumbent is expected to win a single-round victory.
The majority of Indonesians are satisfied with the country's newfound economic and political stability, following decades of brutal authoritarian rule. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has won popular support on a campaign of anti-corruption and financial support for the poor.
Opinion polls indicate that Yudhoyono, who won his first five-year term in 2004, will get the necessary 50 percent plus one vote to defeat two opponents and avoid a September runoff.
We hope people will "come to vote for the best head of state who is able to create peace and prosperity," said Simon Tabuni, an election official in the easternmost province of Papua, which is two hours ahead of the capital, Jakarta.
Until recently, Indonesia was wracked by secessionist battles, suicide bombings by Al Qaeda-funded Islamic militants and towering unemployment after the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98.
Today, the predominantly Muslim country of 235 million is enjoying a level of harmony its critics had said was impossible, with its economy growing at 4 percent a year amid a severe global downturn.
"We are optimistic our candidate will win in a single round based on recent poll results," Andi Mallarangeng, Yudhoyono's campaign spokesman, said on the eve of the election. People "want the continuation of stability in politics, security and economy."
Still, Indonesia faces huge obstacles in attracting foreign investment to improve its crumbling infrastructure, creating an independent judiciary, and reducing poverty of up to 100 million people. It has also struggled to stop illegal logging and mining that are depleting its natural resources and causing global warming.
Most public opinion polls in Indonesia are funded by political parties, but even the surveys paid for by Yudhoyono's opponents put the 59-year-old former general 10 percent ahead of the closest rival. Pro-Yudhoyono pollsters give him a 30 percent lead at 70 percent of the vote. Yudhoyono needs 50 percent of cast ballots to win in one round.
Yudhoyono is competing against Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president whose father was the first postcolonial leader of Indonesia, and Vice President Jusuf Kalla, the frontman of the ex-dictator's political machine, Golkar.
It has been a decade since the Suharto regime was ousted in a public uprising in 1998, but leaders of the country's military past still play an active role in politics. The courts, police and parliament are regularly ranked among the most corrupt institutions in the world by anti-graft watchdogs.
The running mates of Yudhoyono's opponents, former generals Prabowo Subianto and Wiranto, faced accusations by U.N. prosecutors and rights groups of atrocities during the dictatorship, but are expected to win millions of votes.
Foreign observers are hopeful that a win for Yudhoyono, will reinvigorate the push to eradicate graft and nepotism. But former Corruption Eradication Commission deputy chairman, Erry Riyana Hardjapamekas, said the president "is failing to respond to unjust attacks" on the commission, a reference to police investigations into two commissioners.
Yudhoyono has gained a name at home and abroad for his clean reputation, and a crackdown on Southeast Asia's Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network after a series of attacks between 2002 and 2005 killed more than 240 people, most of them foreign tourists on Bali.
The Indonesian Survey Circle, which has accurately forecast previous elections, predicted in a poll published Monday that Yudhoyono would win more than 50 percent of the popular vote. It said Sukarnoputri and Kalla would garner less than 30 percent.
The independent agency said it conducted 2,000 face-to-face interviews in the nationwide survey in mid-June, and that it has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. It declined to tell The Associated Press who commissioned the survey.
Around 176 million people signed up to vote at more than half a million polling stations. The Constitutional Court sided with an opposition demand this week that other citizens — possibly tens of millions — will be allowed to make last-minute registrations to exercise their right to vote.
The National Election Commission overseeing the polls has been widely criticized for failing to compile a list of registered voters, as it did in the April elections. Yudhoyono's rivals — while providing no proof — claim that millions of people will be unable to participate.
Every voter will have their index finger dipped in ink to show they have cast their ballot — a system designed to avoid duplications.