JAKARTA, Indonesia - Polls opened Wednesday for nearly 187 million Indonesians eligible to vote in single-day legislative elections, a huge feat in the still-young democracy that's expected to help clear the path for the country's next president.
After three weeks of peaceful outdoor campaigning, voters across three time zones cast their ballots for members of national as well as local legislatures and representatives. The voting took place at more than a half million makeshift booths from the eastern restive Papua province to the devout Muslim province of Aceh in the west.
For many, the election was more about supporting a specific party than voting for individual candidates, to help boost the chances for their favorite presidential hopeful in the July 9 elections. Parties need to secure 20 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives or 25 percent of the overall vote to nominate a presidential candidate. Otherwise, a coalition must be formed with one or more parties to enter the competition.
Many believe Jakarta Gov. Joko Widodo, known affectionately as Jokowi, is a shoo-in for the top job. The newcomer is adored by the masses for his simple style and willingness to meet and connect with the poor. He was topping opinion polls months before his party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, announced that he would be their presidential nominee in March.
On Wednesday, he cast his ballot alongside his wife in the sprawling capital. Both were wearing white button-down shirts, jeans and sneakers as they were thronged by a pack of around 200 journalists.
"I'm very confident that my party will do very well," said Widodo in English. "My party will win very strong, and my party will take the majority."
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, and his ruling Democratic Party has been ensnared in a spate of high-profile corruption scandals.
Indonesia, a nation of 240 million, is the world's third-largest democracy after India and the United States, and is the most populous Muslim nation - although there are no fundamentalist parties. The 12 main parties are either secular nationalists or moderate loosely based on Islam. A recent survey showed support for Islamic parties had plunged.
There also are no left-wing groupings, and the once-formidable Indonesian Communist Party - which long-time strongman Suharto's U.S.-backed dictatorship decimated in the 1960s - remains banned.
Some 200,000 candidates were vying for nearly 20,000 slots in Wednesday's elections, including 6,607 competing for the 560-seat House and 945 for regional representatives or the Senate. The rest were competing for provincial and local councils.
The ballots were transported on everything from warships and helicopters to motorbikes and horses across the archipelago of 17,000 islands. The election marks only the fourth time Indonesians have had the opportunity to pick their leaders following three decades of brutal rule that ended when Suharto was overthrown in 1998.
"There is no political figure who deserves to get my vote but Jokowi," said Titis Astrini, 29, casting her vote in Jakarta. "So, for the first time I will vote for his party." She added that in the past she had always voted for Islamic-based parties because she was impressed with their commitment to create a clean government.
"But it has been proven that religious parties can also do wrong and be involved in corruption," she said.
Many of the candidates invested their life savings, in some cases offering up their homes and property, for their campaigns. Because the stakes are high for so many, some hospitals brought in extra staff and opened special rooms for treatment in case losers needed counseling for depression or stress.
Despite fresh excitement and energy surrounding Widodo's presidential bid that is expected to bring out new voters, getting people to the polls remains a challenge in a country plagued by cronyism and rampant graft that continues to blight high-ranking members of political parties.
Exit polls - generally considered reliable indicators of winners - were expected after voting closed Wednesday afternoon. Official results will be announced May 9.