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Voter Education Campaign Aims to Inform Indonesians About Election Process - 2004-04-01

Indonesia is preparing to hold elections Monday for national and local assemblies. Analysts say although many voters are enthusiastic about going to the polls, they are worried that a large number of voters may not be informed enough to make wise choices on election day. Correspondent Scott Bobb reports on the situation from East Java, which is one of the most populous provinces in the country.

In the low-lying plains of East Java, the flooded rice paddies stretch to the horizon and the green rice stalks are high.

The silence of the countryside is interrupted by a convoy of supporters of one of the 24 political parties running in the upcoming elections, going home after a rally.

Up the single lane road, at one of the warehouses, farmer Fauzi watches his workers spread harvested rice on the ground to dry. Mr. Fauzi is a member of the local Lamonogan district election committee. He is worried about the election because he says only about half of the people in his area understand how to vote.

Mr. Fauzi says people have seen examples on television, but not everyone knows the details, and these are the most complicated elections in the history of the nation.

Indonesians are electing representatives to four national and local assemblies. As a result, they must correctly fill out four separate ballot papers, each one the size of a campaign poster, and deposit them in the appropriate ballot box.

A parliament member who is running for re-election in the province, Djoko Susilo says there is a lot of confusion.

"For the first time, the name of the candidate will be put on the ballot paper and it makes the paper so big? So it is not good," he said.

In addition, Indonesians are directly electing representatives for the first time. Before, they voted for a political party, which designated who would represent them in the assemblies.

A researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Landry Subianto, says the country's leaders are trying for more democracy after three decades of authoritarian rule under former President Suharto. But now many fear the reforms have made things too complicated.

"One of the debates now being raised in Indonesia is whether or not people understand this new mechanism and system, because even for people in the cities, these are too complicated," he said.

However, a consortium of Indonesian civic groups, supported by international funding, has recruited tens-of-thousands of volunteers to educate Indonesians on how to vote.

In the town of Babat, 70 kilometers west of Surabaya, volunteers have set up a booth on the edge of the central market.

The volunteers fan out through market stalls, handing out fliers and talking to people.

Their leader, Fathurahim, says they demonstrate how to punch a hole through the party symbol in order for the ballot to be valid.

Mr. Fathurahim says before, people were afraid to go to the polls because they were not sure about procedures and were intimidated by the size of the ballot. But after they were taught by his team, he says they feel more confident.

Sri, a vendor of onions and chili peppers, has seen the demonstration.

Ms. Sri says she got information from the volunteers and now she understands.

Analysts say that despite the work of the volunteers, public education on the vote is lagging. Many blame the national electoral commission, which has been plagued by logistical and administrative problems. Others say the sheer scale of organizing 147 million eligible voters spread across 17,000 islands would cause problems no matter who was in charge.

Observers say problems and complaints are likely, but many are taking the long view, saying democracy cannot be instituted in a few months in a country as complex as Indonesia, and that this election should be seen as a step in a much more lengthy process.