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Indonesia Elections Highlight Challenges, Maturing Democracy

Indonesia, which has has the world's largest Muslim population, holds legislative elections Thursday, amid concerns about vote buying, fraud and some regional violence in the country. But the elections mark a transition for the young democracy.

Indonesia's legislative elections span thousands of islands with more than three dozen political parties and tens of thousands of candidates.

A Carter Center election monitoring team senior advisor, Eric Bjornlund, is one of several groups observing the massive undertaking.

"It is probably the largest electoral exercise in a single day in the world," Bjornlund said. "The few countries in the world that are larger that hold elections do them over many days. India has elections that are not held in a single day. So, this is a very complex process."

The election is Indonesia's third since the 1998 fall of President Suharto, who ruled the nation of islands for more than three decades.

Indonesia has since become an active and relatively stable and successful democracy compared to many of its neighbors. But concerns have been raised about vote-rigging after fraudulent names and birthdays were uncovered in a local election.

Recent violence in Aceh and Papua has also highlighted the extent of political tensions.

Jakarta Center for Strategic and International Studies researcher Sunny Tanuwidjaja says despite the problems, Indonesia's democracy is stabilizing.

"Although in 1999 we had an election, some would consider it not counted," Tanuwidjaja said. "So, we believe in 2004 we do it pretty successfully and now in 2009 we do a second real direct election in democracy. So, I think if we do pretty well on this, I think we are on the right track towards democratic consolidation."

Tanuwidjaja says post-election instability is now the biggest concern.

Indonesia changed its election rules to weed out smaller parties, and increased the threshold of support needed for parties to field candidates in the July presidential election.

Analysts say the new rules are likely to increase the number of complaints and challenges to vote counts.

Bjornlund says despite those concerns, the restructuring shows Indonesia's democracy is maturing.

"This creates some possibility for confusion among voters and some possibilities for controversy," Bjornlund said. "But, this is all to be expected and part of sorting out the kind of election system that will provide the kind of accountability and representations that Indonesians want."

Polls show the ruling Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is expected to win the most support in the elections. His party is seen as the biggest reformer of the parties and has been working to tackle widespread corruption.

Former President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle is expected to get the second-highest number of votes.

While Golkar, the former party of Suharto, is expected to come in third.