Indonesian polls give lead to prez

JAKARTA: Exit polls gave Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono an unassailable lead as voting closed in only the second direct presidential election since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship.

A poll broadcast by MetroTV gave the liberal ex-general 50.48 percent of the vote, compared to 19.48 percent for opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri and 15.19 percent for outgoing Vice President Jusuf Kalla.

Another "quick count" poll broadcast by TV One gave Yudhoyono 53.87 percent of the vote, with Kalla on 25.79 and Megawati third on 20.74.

Final official results are not expected for several days but based on the unofficial figures Yudhoyono will be hoping to avoid a second-round run-off in September.

He needs more than 50 percent of the vote and 20 percent in all 33 provinces to win in the first round.

Some 170 million people were eligible to vote in the world's largest Muslim-majority country, from eastern Papua province to Sumatra island in the west -- spanning three time zones and 17,000 islands.

Yudhoyono has promised to boost growth through reforms to the corruption-riddled bureaucracy, but has been attacked as a "neo-liberal" by his rivals who championed populist policies of "self-reliance."

The mild-mannered 59-year-old -- who likes to write love songs in his spare time -- is the most popular Indonesian leader in the democratic era despite a reputation for indecisiveness.

His centrist Democratic Party almost tripled its vote in April general elections to become the largest in parliament, allowing him to pack his new cabinet with hand-picked technocrats instead of political appointments.

If re-elected, he will be the first president to serve consecutive terms at the helm of the world's third-biggest democracy behind India and the United States, after its violent birth at the end of 32 years of dictatorship in 1998.

From bloody street unrest and economic chaos in the late 1990s, Indonesia has transformed itself into the best performing economy in Southeast Asia and an example of democratic stability in a region scarred by political turmoil.

Yudhoyono's popularity is based on five years of steady economic growth, slow but even-handed reform of the bureaucracy and security forces, and a tough anti-corruption drive which has netted several senior officials.

He has weathered the global financial meltdown, with strong domestic demand underpinning growth at around four percent this year, the highest in the region and third only to China and India among the G20 countries.

There were no reports of violence disrupting voting, despite communal tensions in several provinces and pre-election complaints from Megawati and Kalla over incomplete voter lists and missing polling booths.

Security forces opened fire on a group of people who attacked a police post and set three vehicles ablaze before dawn near the massive US-owned Freeport mine in Papua, where a separatist rebellion has simmered for decades.

"We suspect that this group wanted to disrupt the elections," Mimika town police chief Godhelp Mansnembra told AFP, adding no one was injured.

Yudhoyono drove to a polling station near his home in Bogor in a golf caddy labelled "VVIP" and was welcomed by scores of supporters.

Megawati, the daughter of independence hero Sukarno and an ex-president who lost to Yudhoyono in 2004, voted with her husband in Jakarta and called on officials to ensure a "fair and objective" election.

Despite his popularity, the president has been criticised for caving in to Islamist extremists over tolerance issues such as a controversial anti-pornography law and restrictions on minority groups.

But his government has worked closely with the United States and Australia to crack down on Al-Qaeda inspired fanatics who launched the 2002 Bali bombings and other atrocities.

With some 30 million people living below the poverty line, wages and jobs came well ahead of religious and security issues for many voters.

In contrast to Yudhoyono, who chose a Western-educated economist as his running mate, Megawati and Kalla shared their tickets with former generals who ran on populist platforms of protectionism and national "self-reliance."