04/05/2004, 00.00
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Religious leaders tell citizens to vote for tolerance, democracy, unity

Polls open for second free elections since fall of Suharto dictatorship.

Jakarta (AsiaNews/Agencies) –Polls opened at early 7.00 a.m. as the first ballots were cast in the country's second free elections after 30 years of Suharto dictatorship, a regime overthrown in 1999.

Around 147 Indonesian citizens now enjoy the right to vote, as a high turnout is expected today. In the 1999 elections 80% of lawful voters turned up to cast their ballots.

To prevent acts of Islamic terrorism which might be launched to stop elections, the government has implemented  extremely high security measures as 280,000 police units stand guard across the archipelago.

Even though 87.2% of Indonesians are Muslim, the country has no fundamentalist parties. No cases of public disorder have been reported in the provinces of Papua and Aceh (on the southern tip of Sumatra island), regions claimed by separatist rebels contesting the elections.

Several religious leaders have voiced their opinions on how voters should cast ballots on election day. They did this through a joint statement in which they urged voters to choose candidates according to their own consciences "as a demonstration of their own responsibility as good citizens".

On March 31 around 200 Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, Confucian and Hindu leaders gathered to express their hope that parties, especially those of a religious nature, would foster moral values like respect, honest, justice and tolerance.

The group invited all other religious leaders in the country to contribute to peaceful and safe elections and help bring about democracy, the best choice for building up an "Indonesian home" based on brotherhood, equality and justice.   

"Differences in religious identities represent cultural wealth. They must be respected and become a pillar to support democracy as it develops (in Indonesia)", their statement read.

According to  I Nyoman Suwandha, Parisadha Hindu Dharma chairman, political "leaders must understand that people are the backbone of society and must pay attention to their complaints."

Based on some pre-election surveys, no party has an absolute majority of voter support. However the Golkar party, which ruled during Suharto's dictatorship, is seen as the favorite, despite having a dirty tradition of corruption, authoritarianism as well as a history of  promoting economic monopolies and nepotism.    

Many Indonesians have said they want to vote for Golkar candidates since they "have greater experience" than those of the Indonesian Democratic Struggle Party (PDI-P). The latter is the party of current President Megawati Sukarnoputri who has let people's hopes down in the fight to end to corruption and unemployment in pursuing social and political reforms.

President Sukarnoputri initially won voters' approval, since she is the daughter of the country's founder, Sukarno. This year's general election results will likely have a direct influence on whether she is reelected or not in July's presidential elections.

Above and beyond its Muslim majority, Indonesia is represented by many other faiths, among which are Christians (9.7%, of which 6.1% are Protestant and 3.6% Catholic), Hindu (1.8%) and Buddhists (1%). Other Indonesian citizens are members of syncretist and animist cults.  (MR)

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