Indonesia goes to the polls to elect its national and local legislatures today, in what many see as a foretaste of the presidential polls in July. The polls will determine the shape of the national legislature and provide a case study of progress or its lack of in the troubled provinces of Aceh and West Papua.

The elections are being contested by 38 parties, with four of those being exclusively Acehnese parties contesting only in Aceh. Nationally, parties have to win at least 20 per cent of the vote to be able to field a presidential candidate, or come together as a coalition with more than 20 per cent.

At this stage, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s mildly reformist Democratic Party looks as though it will reach the 20 per cent threshold, doubling its voter base from 2004 on the back of his largely successful presidency. This will put Yudhoyono in the driver’s seat for the July presidential poll.

The Democratic Party is closely followed by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s more conservative Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), pitching her again as Yudhoyono’s main rival for the presidency. Late President Suharto’s Golkar party is running third, with a smattering of smaller, Islamist parties and parties of former army generals Wiranto and Suharto relative Prabowo Subianto filling the minor placings.

For Yudhoyono, the question will be less can he pass the threshold for presidential candidature, but rather whether he will be able to put together a coalition to give him a useful legislative majority should he win a second term as president.

In Aceh, the former Free Aceh Movement’s Aceh Party continues as the overwhelming leader, worrying Indonesian military officers who believe the Acehnese still harbour dreams of independence. In a bid to dampen Aceh Party support, the last few weeks have seen several people killed in a bombing campaign directed against the Aceh Party, although this seems to have only firmed the Aceh Party in its prime position.

In West Papua, the now-divided province has seen large pro “freedom” rallies in recent days, with one in Nabire, Wamena district on Saturday attracting more than 10,000 supporters. An attack on the rally by security forces left one dead and several injured, with dozens of arrests. This follows attacks by Free Papua Organisation guerrillas on security forces which left three dead.

Rally organisers in West Papua have claimed that security forces have over-reacted to their democratic rights to assembly and free speech, while in Aceh political leaders say they only want to get on with business as an autonomous province. As the rest of Indonesia democratises and reforms, it seems that in West Papua, as with Aceh, remnants of the old military-backed New Order regime of President Suharto are slow to accept the changing times.

Associate Professor Damien Kingsbury is associate head (research) of the School of International and Political Studies at Deakin University, and author of several books on Indonesian politics.

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