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Indonesians to Vote in First Direct Presidential Election - 2004-07-04


Voters in Indonesia are to elect a president by direct vote for the first time on Monday. The ballot is being viewed as a major milestone in the country's six-year old transition to democracy. Although campaigning by the five presidential and vice-presidential candidates has been intense, election-related violence has been low.

About 150 million voters are eligible to cast ballots at a half-million polling stations across Indonesia's 13,000 islands.

Despite the size of the task, the National Election Commission says the campaign and preparation have overall been peaceful and orderly.

The Center for Electoral Reform is one of half-a-dozen organizations that are fielding tens of thousands of observers to monitor the elections. Deputy-Director Hadar Gumay says there have been logistical problems in a few remote areas, but voting is expected to go smoothly.

"This election is much more simple than the previous, legislative elections, in terms of ballot papers, in terms of how to vote, it is just much much simple[r]," he said.

Mr. Gumay says election officials are more experienced now and have learned from problems with the legislative vote three months ago, when hundreds of thousands of candidates competed and ballot papers were often larger than the polling booths.

Public-opinion surveys released days before the election show former security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has more than 40 percent of the vote and a wide lead over his rival candidates, President Megawati Sukarnoputri, former armed forces chief General Wiranto, legislative assembly speaker Amien Rais and vice-president Hamzah Haz. Polls say these candidates are running close together, with about 10 percent of vote each.

Political analysts say the main question is whether Mr. Yudhoyono will win outright and avoid a run-off election - scheduled for September.

The head of the International Foundation for Election Systems, IFES, Alan Wall, says the campaign has been primarily about personalities, but he says voters are concerned about several major issues.

"The issues that seem to be most important to them [the voters] in terms of policy are economic and corruption as it affects their daily lives," said Mr. Wall.

Many analysts say that Indonesia's next president will face a daunting task of rebuilding an economy crippled since the Asia financial crisis six-years ago, reducing a 20 percent unemployment rate, and fighting widespread corruption.

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