Downtown Jakarta is complete traffic gridlock stretching for kilometres in every direction. Overburdened buses with no doors are spewing out thick black fumes into the faces of whole families piled on top of motorcycles. Beggars weave between cars, while some guy on the sidewalk is trying to make an unhealthy-looking monkey dance while wearing the head of a decapitated toy doll. The traffic police mill around, casually flailing their arms, directing hordes of half-empty people movers to merge into traffic lanes that don’t actually exist.

It sounds like the kind of thing most politicians would want to cover up. But in Jakarta, with its huge population and lack of infrastructure, traffic jams are part and parcel of a campaign rally.

Today Indonesia will head to the polls to directly elect its president, for only the second time ever. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority democracy, boasting a population of approximately 230 million. The nation also has the largest economy in Southeast Asia and is a vital trading partner with Australia. It has only been a functioning democracy since 1998, when former President Suharto was forced to resign during the Asian Economic Crisis, and during the past decade or so has battled regional violence and separatism, terrorist attacks from Islamic extremists and more than a fair share of natural disasters. Fighting corruption and widespread poverty, while sustaining national economic growth, are some of the main concerns for voters.

Perhaps the most surprising things about today’s election is a) how little drama there has been, and b) that everyone is pretty sure that they know who is going to win.

Legislative elections held on April 9 went relatively smoothly and as predicted, with current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY)’s Democratic Party taking out 20% of overall votes, followed by Vice President Jusuf Kalla’s Golkar Party, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and the Islam-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). Five other smaller parties also won spots in the House of Representatives.

After much courting, will-they-won’t-they and reshuffling to meet percentage thresholds to nominate candidates for presidency, three pairs have emerged to contend today’s race. Megawati has partnered with Prabowo, head of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra). Kalla and SBY have split their partnership, each contending for presidency — Kalla with Wiranto, leader of the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura) as his sidekick, Yudhoyono with Boediono, the former governor of the nation’s central bank. As Boediono does not belong to any political party, their ticket received backing from numerous smaller parties, including Islamist parties.

Perhaps the greatest downside for many Indonesians, particularly the young, is that none of the candidates are fresh faces. Three are former army generals — Yudhoyono, Wiranto and Prabowo — while Megawati is the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president. Prabowo was married to one of Suharto’s daughters and he and Wiranto both stand accused of committing human rights abuses during their time in the military. The candidates have also been criticised for a lack of strong policy and ‘boring’ televised presidential debates.

But according to opinion polls, incumbent Yudhoyono should regain his position comfortably, with the only question being whether he will garner enough votes to win in one round or two. A Gallup Poll released this week showed 92% of Indonesians surveyed approved of Yudhoyono’s performance as president and optimism about the economy was increasing, despite the global financial crisis.

So as Indonesians cast their votes in the makeshift booths that have sprung up underneath overpasses, on soccer fields, in remote villages and even, confusingly, in the middle of busy roads, today’s poll is likely to be a nod for consistency in a nation that is moving ahead step by step.