, JAKARTA, Jul 8 – Indonesia voted in only its second direct presidential election since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship with ex-general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono tipped to win a second term.
Opinion polls suggest Yudhoyono could avoid a run-off in September by beating opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri and outgoing Vice President Jusuf Kalla with a clear majority in the first round.
Victory will give the mild-mannered 59-year-old — who likes to write love songs in his spare time — a clear mandate to speed up bureaucratic reform and fight corruption in the most populous Muslim-majority nation.
He would also be the first president to serve consecutive terms at the helm of the world’s third-biggest democracy behind India and the United States, after its violent birth at the end of three decades of dictatorship in 1998.
The first polls to open were in the resource-rich eastern province of Papua, and they will close on the northern tip of western Sumatra island at 0600 GMT. Some 170 million people are eligible to vote across 17,000 islands.
There were no reports of violence disrupting voting.
"We hope the presidential elections will be carried out peacefully… and democratically throughout Indonesia," Yudhoyono told reporters in Bogor after driving himself to a polling station in a golf caddy labelled "VVIP."
With some 30 million people living below the poverty line, promises of higher wages and more jobs were central to all three candidates’ campaigns, well ahead of religious and security issues.
Almost 250,000 police have been deployed across the vast archipelago of 234 million people to safeguard polling stations, especially in restive Papua where violence marred legislative polls in April.
Security forces opened fire on a group of people who attacked a police post and set three vehicles on fire before dawn near the massive US-owned Freeport mine in Papua, where a separatist rebellion has simmered for decades.
"We suspect that this group wanted to disrupt the elections," Mimika town police chief Godhelp Mansnembra told AFP, adding no one was injured.
Megawati, who has complained over incomplete voter lists and a shortage of polling stations, was the first candidate to cast her ballot.
"This election should be carried out in a fair and objective manner so the president has legitimacy from the people," the ex-president and daughter of independence hero Sukarno told reporters in Jakarta.
Yudhoyono’s popularity is based on five years of steady economic growth in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, slow but even-handed reform of the bureaucracy and security forces, and a tough anti-corruption drive.
He has weathered the global financial meltdown, with strong domestic demand underpinning growth at around four percent this year, the highest in the region.
Despite his popularity, the president has been criticised for caving in to Islamist extremists over tolerance issues such as a controversial anti-pornography law and restrictions on minority groups.
But his government has worked closely with the United States and Australia to crack down on Al-Qaeda inspired fanatics who launched the 2002 Bali bombings and other atrocities.
Megawati and Kalla have both touted a brand of economic nationalism in response to what they have called Yudhoyono’s "neo-liberalism," vowing to protect jobs from foreign competition and investment.
Yudhoyono, who was a senior general under Suharto but emerged from that regime with his reputation intact, chose Western-educated economist and former central bank chief Boediono as his vice-presidential candidate.
Megawati teamed up with notorious special forces ex-commander Prabowo Subianto, while Kalla chose former military chief Wiranto, accused of atrocities in East Timor in 1999.
The presence of Suharto-era generals on all three tickets shows the lingering power of the old military elite in Indonesia, analysts said.