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Indonesian Voters Cautiously Hopeful Upcoming Election will Bring Better Life - 2004-04-01

Indonesians are preparing to go to the polls Monday to elect representatives to their national and local assemblies. These are the first direct elections in the country's history and the first to be organized by the government that was elected after the fall of long-time dictator Suharto. Correspondent Scott Bobb has been visiting the East Java region, which is home to one out of every six voters in the country and a battleground for several parties.

Surabaya is a port city of seven million people. It is the gateway between Java island - home to one-half of all Indonesians - and the rest of the 17,000 islands that make up this vast archipelago of 220 million people.

In the port, machines load crates onto a ship bound for Papua. It is a week-long voyage from Java to the New Guinea port several thousand kilometers to the east.

Warehouse manager Timbol is a young looking man who says he plans to vote because he is not happy with the current leadership.

Mr. Timbol says he hopes there are some changes because the party he voted for last time failed to enact the reforms he expected. But he says he will vote for the same party, because it runs in his family.

Up the road about 70 kilometers, in the rice farming district of Lamongan, Agus sells fish at a local market.

Mr. Agus says he hopes new leadership will bring a better life for people like himself. But he, too, is not very optimistic. He says right now, democracy does not exist because the promises made have not been fulfilled. He says politicians, instead of making empty promises, should do something.

The director of the democracy program at the Asia Foundation, Tim Meisburger, says there is a sense of disillusionment among some voters.

"It's probably because people had unrealistic expectations after 1999," he explained. "They thought, 'Oh, we'll have a democracy and everything will be perfect.' And now, people's expectations for what democracy can deliver are more realistic."

Because of the dissatisfaction, public opinion polls project that the party of President Megawati Sukarnoputri will lose votes and the Golkar party that ruled during the Suharto era will perform better. They also show that several small Islamic parties may make significant gains.

One of these is the Prosperity and Justice Party, or PKS, which has gained popularity because of its reputation as corruption-free. At its rally in a stadium in central Surabaya, the men stand on the grass near the stage, while the women sit separately in the bleachers. All are dressed in white, the party color. Many are waving flags.

A troupe of actors is on the stage. One laments that his life is no better today than it was under authoritarianism. His friends cry and whine in sympathy, then they urge people to vote for change. The crowd laughs but the message is clear.

Baktiar, a communications specialist at a foreign company here, has just joined the PKS. He is like many voters who are tired of a system that they summarize with the initials KKN, standing for corruption, collusion and nepotism.

Mr. Baktiar says he sees this party as an alternative choice for voters who want to revive the reform movement, which he says has stalled.

The PKS also has a strong religious component. But it is not pressing for an Islamic state in Indonesia, despite the fact that nearly 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslim.

In the women's section, Anita, wearing a shawl over her party cap, explains why.

Ms. Anita says an Islamic state is not necessary because once the true teachings of Islam are implemented, Muslims will conform and non-Muslims will be protected.

Analysts say the half-dozen Islamist parties competing in the election are avoiding the Islamic state issue because it is not popular with the majority of voters. Nevertheless, a significant number of voters are sympathetic to the idea.

In this election, voters for the first time can choose individuals to be their representatives, whereas before they could only choose a party and the party chose who went to parliament.

Organizers hope this innovation will make elected officials more accountable. Some observers are not so sure, noting that while voters do want change, many of them are still attached to voting traditions and party loyalties.