Indonesia waits as votes are counted

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Here, in Indonesia’s northernmost city, residents are flocking to the many open-air, stripped-down, wooden coffee stalls to talk about one thing: Election Day.

Some 170 million Indonesians headed to the polls Thursday to vote in the first direct parliamentary election here since the toppling of Suharto, the country’s long-time dictator, a decade ago. It is an important test for Indonesia’s still young democracy.

The parliamentary election will determine which political parties can send up a candidate for the all-important presidential elections in July. A party or coalition of parties that take a fifth of the 560 seats in the national parliament or 25 percent of the popular vote can nominate a presidential candidate to face off against the country’s reform-minded incumbent, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The process itself has proven to be a logistical nightmare. More than 500,000 polling booths were set up across hundreds of far-flung islands, where Indonesians voted for 11,000 national candidates and an estimated 1 million provincial and local candidates.

The lead-up to the election has been fraught with problems, including fraudulent voter lists and confusion over how to punch ballots. Election Day, however, just like the campaign season, passed by peacefully, with few exceptions. Now, everyone is looking forward to the days and weeks ahead, wondering if disputes over the results will threaten the country’s stability — fears that are rooted in memories of the political chaos and violence that followed Suharto’s demise.

Indonesia, though, is not the same place it was 10 or even five years ago. By most accounts, democracy has taken a firm hold on the world’s largest Muslim nation. It is only in the troubled provinces of Aceh and Papua that political violence has erupted.

In Papua, six people, including at least one police officer, were killed Thursday amid clashes between security forces and separatist fighters. A small independence movement has simmered in the resource-rich province for decades.

But it is in Aceh, Indonesia’s northernmost province, where fears of violence are most serious. Separatist guerrillas fought for independence for more than 30 years until a peace agreement was reached in 2005, months after an earthquake and tsunami leveled the capital city and killed more than 170,000 people.

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A central element of the peace agreement, which has not yet been fully implemented, was the ability for Aceh to establish local political parties to contest regional elections. And it is the political vehicle of the former rebels, known as Partai Aceh, which is expected to sweep the provincial legislature.

If it doesn’t, some say the peace deal could fall apart.

“If Partai Aceh doesn’t win, there will be chaos, there will be riots," said Ali, 32, who was born in a rebel stronghold to a family with long ties to Aceh’s independence movement. "I never fought. I never went to the mountains and joined the movement. But independence was in my blood and in my heart.”

“I support Partai Aceh," Ali continued, "because it is made up of people that have always had the interests of the Acehnese as their top priority.”

But some feel Partai Aceh does not represent the interests of the country as a whole and might still be harboring desires for independence. The Indonesian military, in particular, remains suspicious of the ex-rebels and worries their election could threaten the country’s integrity.

A series of attacks against Partai Aceh officials over the last few months has added to the tension. Grenade attacks, shootings and other forms of intimidation have plagued the party recently and at least five Partai Aceh officials have been shot dead. Several unexploded bombs were found in the capital city Wednesday and Thursday.

Despite several arrests, police have remained silent about who is behind the attacks and as a result the capital city has taken to hushed whispering about who might be responsible. Savvy political operatives tour the coffee shops searching out local and foreign journalists who will listen to their side of the story.

Some are blaming the military. Others say the attacks are the result of internal squabbles within Partai Aceh. Still others think it is just common criminals.

Now everyone is wondering if the peace will hold after Thursday.

“I still don’t trust the government and I hold a grudge against the military here,” said Ali, whose best friend fought for the rebels and was killed by the military in 2000. “I think there is a 50-50 chance that the peace will fall apart. But I am grateful that there is peace now and I am hopeful that we can resolve the disputes that still remain.”

For now, the Acehnese, and the rest of Indonesia, can only wait as the behemoth undertaking of counting the ballots proceeds. A quick count result is expected late Thursday, but it could be weeks before those results are made official.

More on democracy in Indonesia:

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