Indonesians vote in country's first nationwide regional elections

A woman casting her vote at a polling station in Kuta, Bali, on Dec 9.
A woman casting her vote at a polling station in Kuta, Bali, on Dec 9. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (AFP) - Tens of millions of Indonesians were voting on Wednesday (Dec 9) in the country's first nationwide regional elections, the latest step in years-long efforts to strengthen democracy following the end of authoritarian rule.

About 100 million voters are eligible to elect 269 provincial governors, district heads and city mayors, with polls taking place in around half the local administrations of the world's third-biggest democracy.

Direct elections for local leaders were introduced a decade ago, when power was heavily decentralised as democratic reforms were rolled out in the years after the 1998 downfall of dictator Suharto.

President Joko Widodo rose to power thanks to the system, starting his political career as a city mayor. Local leader polls were abolished last year after a Parliament vote pushed by Mr Joko's rivals, but reinstated several months later following an outcry.

Never before have so many been held at the same time, however, with local polls in the past taking place across the country on a rolling basis.

By holding votes simultaneously, election officials hope to make the system more efficient and save money, and plan to eventually have local polls across the whole country at the same time.

Mr Philips Vermonte, a political analyst at Jakarta think-tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the vote was "very significant", as it marked progress in Indonesia's democratic reforms.

"What we've been learning so far in the past 15 years since we started the democratic process, is that we have to reform along the way," he said.

Analysts say the votes have been focused solely on local issues. But Mr Vermonte said when they happen simultaneously across the country in future, people may begin to treat them as more of a referendum on how national parties are doing, like United States midterms.

Elections are an enormous undertaking in the archipelago, with officials struggling to get ballots to voters in a country that stretches over three time zones from the jungle-clad island of Sumatra in the west, to mountainous Papua in the east.

Cheating is a worry at any election in corruption-riddled Indonesia, as is security, with about 200,000 police and military personnel deployed for the vote.

Complete results are not expected for several days.