Indonesian vote to set governor on course for presidency

JAKARTA - Polling stations opened in Indonesia early Wednesday in legislative elections expected to boost the main opposition and move their popular presidential candidate a step closer to becoming the country's next leader.

Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, known by his nickname "Jokowi", is a fresh face in a country long dominated by aloof ex-military figures and tycoons from the three-decade rule of dictator Suharto.

The 52-year-old former furniture business owner has been a political phenomenon since his meteoric rise to the capital's top job in 2012, with his common touch - he regularly visits Jakarta's slums in his trademark checked shirt - winning him a huge following.

"We see him as a success and we see him as honest... We believe he will bring a new dawn to Indonesia," said Deni Ardiansyah, a 25-year-old Jakarta shop worker.

Buoyed by his popularity, Widodo's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) has long been ahead in opinion polls for the legislative elections, and the party extended its lead after nominating him for president last month.

The polls, spread across three time zones, opened in heavy rain in the easternmost region of Papua at 7:00 am (2200 GMT Tuesday), but logistical hiccups there may force some 30 districts to delay their votes for up to three days, an election official said.

"The polls are open in the main towns, like Jayapura, but last night planes still couldn't reach some districts in the mountains," Papua province election official Betty Wanane told AFP.

She added that the local election body was not given a large enough budget to deliver all the ballots and boxes, and that several deadlines for logistics had been missed.

Local media reported cases of candidates making last-ditch attempts to buy votes with cooking oil, sugar and other handouts in a widespread but illegal practice.

Almost half a million police officers will secure the polls, with the help of more than 20,000 soldiers and more than a million civil officers, said National Police Chief Sutarman, who goes by one name.

Pre-election violence has been largely concentrated in the western province of Aceh, where deadly shootings and arson attacks have occurred.

The day is expected to be a bad one for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's ruling Democratic Party, with polls putting it in fourth place after a string of corruption scandals.

The legislative elections, the fourth in Indonesia since the end of authoritarian rule in 1998, are important because they decide who can run at presidential polls on July 9.

A party or coalition of parties needs 20 per cent of seats in the 560-seat lower house of parliament or 25 per cent of the national vote to field a candidate.

The PDI-P is the only one out of 12 parties running nationwide seen as having a chance of achieving this on its own. Others will have to form coalitions to get over the threshold and nominate a candidate.

The eastern part of the vast archipelago of 17,000 islands was the first to vote, with polling stations opening later in central and western Indonesia.

Challenges ahead

Despite the euphoria surrounding Widodo, who has been topping presidential opinion polls for months, he is likely to face formidable opposition in his run for head of state.

His main rival is seen as Prabowo Subianto, a former commander of the Indonesian army's notorious special forces who has been accused of human rights abuses, although he lags far behind the governor in the polls.

Whoever replaces Yudhoyono - due to step down after 10 years in power - will inherit tremendous challenges, with growth in Southeast Asia's top economy slowing, religious intolerance in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country on the rise and corruption endemic.

While the main focus is on the election at the national level, Indonesians will also be voting for lawmakers in provincial and district legislatures on the same day.

Some 186 million voters are eligible, and around 230,000 candidates are competing nationwide for about 20,000 seats.

Unofficial tallies carried out by private pollsters, known as "quick counts", are released several hours after polls close at 1:00 pm and are normally accurate. Official results are not expected until early May.