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Indonesia waits as votes are counted

Will fragile peace hold as results of the first direct parliamentary election become known?

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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