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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Indonesia Turns Corner

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Brushing aside doomsday scenarios and ghosts of the past, Indonesians by the millions have turned the prelude to their first free election in 44 years into a joyous celebration of democracy unimaginable just months ago.

For two weeks, in a campaign largely free of violence, the political revelry that officially ended Friday brought this city of 10 million to a virtual standstill, with festive rallies and waving flags and beating drums and party faithful who danced and sang and paraded, turning Jakarta into a giant street carnival.

The outcome was being decided Monday, as Indonesians go to the polls to choose which of 48 parties can best rebuild their nation's shattered dreams. The election represents a significant rebuke of authoritarian rule in Southeast Asia and a historic step toward transforming this country of 212 million people into the world's third-largest democracy, after India and the United States.

"You get the feeling things are starting to turn in society," the Rev. Frans Magnis, a German missionary who has lived in Indonesia since 1961, said. "Violence was minor, nothing like we saw during the riots 13 months ago. We didn't see the hatred, anger and envy that built up under [former President] Suharto, when every group felt threatened. Maybe people have already let off their steam. Let's hope that's the message of the campaign."

What the boisterous campaign was about, if not substance and policy, was empowerment - the empowerment of a people silenced during Suharto's 32 years in power. Regardless of what party wins and what president eventually emerges to govern the world's most populous Moslem nation, the vote Monday will be a vote against the past. Even Suharto's Golkar Party - symbol of abuse and corruption - has turned itself into a party that advocates reform and democracy.

"We students were the pioneers of all this, and that makes me very proud," said activist Nita Dyah, 20, speaking of the student rebellion that forced Suharto to resign in May 1998 amid bloody riots in Jakarta that claimed 1,200 lives. "Who'd have dared guess a year ago that you'd see people on the streets like this, campaigning, or that you'd even see a free election?" The presence of polling monitors from more than 25 countries, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, underscores how much significance the world community attaches to the election and the future of a stable, democratic Indonesia, whose potential political and economic clout is unrivaled in Southeast Asia.

Until its economy collapsed two years ago, throwing 20 million people out of work, Indonesia was one of the region's shining examples of development. It still represents a huge market for U.S. goods, a leading voice in the world of moderate Islam, a balance to China's growing Asian influence and, with its sheer size - 13,000 islands stretching 5,000 kilometers along the Equator - a site of strategic importance on international shipping lanes.

Independent polls suggest that the ruling Golkar Party, headed by Suharto's handpicked successor, President B.J. Habibie, has little chance of retaining its more than three-decade grip on power, despite major democratic reforms that Habibie has instituted during the past year.

Golkar still has financial resources and organizational strength. But Habibie, political analysts say, is too tainted by his association with Suharto to be a credible candidate. His campaign was dealt a severe setback May 17 when the three key opposition parties formed a "united front" to dislodge Golkar.

The beneficiary of Golkar's fall from grace appears to be the front-runner in the polls, Megawati Sukarnoputri, 52, of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDIP. The daughter of Indonesia's founding father, the late President Sukarno, she appeals to the dispossessed as a victim of Suharto's repression and is respected, in spite of her aloof nature, vague policies and uninspiring speeches, as someone who represents a clean break from the ill-remembered Suharto era.

Her two "partners" in the shaky front are Amien Rais, 55, of the National Mandate Party, a U.S.-educated academic considered one of Indonesia's most progressive reform leaders, and Abdurrahman Wahid, 59, of the National Awakening Party, a venerated Moslem cleric who preaches separation of religion and state. All three figures have differing views on issues ranging from the future of the disputed territory of East Timor to investigating Suharto's wealth.

Political analysts say that no party is likely to receive a plurality Monday and that a coalition will almost certainly have to be formed after the election for 462 parliament seats and before November, when the parliament is scheduled to elect a president. That raises the specter of six months of deal-making, party-hopping, vote-buying and possible violence.

Whatever the results, Indonesia has many hurdles left to cross. Among them: Public expectations have been raised to giddy levels, and none of the leading candidates have prepared their loyalists for the possibility of losing. And, with 12 of the parties representing distinctly Moslem interests, there is the question of whether Indonesia will remain sectarian or become more secular.

David Lamb is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.