Indonesian officials rushed to count ballots yesterday in the country's first presidential election as partial results showed President Megawati Sukarnoputri likely to contest a run-off in September against a former army general.
Megawati's showing so far is stronger than opinion polls suggested before the elections Monday, and some believe she now could pose a serious challenge to front-runner Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in the Sept. 20 second round between the two top vote-getters.
"Neither candidate can take the next election for granted," said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a political analyst. "Megawati faces the possibility of a coalition that goes against her simply because it wants change. Yudhoyono faces an incumbent who can make use of her office to really improve on her performance."
With just under half of the estimated vote counted yesterday, official results showed Yudhoyono leading with 34 percent ahead of Megawati on 27 percent. Another military general, Wiranto, had 22 percent.
Two other candidates shared the remainder of the votes.
Those numbers mirror that of a nationwide vote sample by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, which showed Yudhoyono with 34 percent, Megawati with 26 percent and Wiranto trailing in third place with 23 percent.
The institute, which counted half a million votes from 2,500 selected voting stations, has accurately predicted results in dozens of elections around the world. The study had a margin of error of 1.1 percent.
None of the candidates have conceded yet, and are unlikely to do so until official results are announced on July 26, especially with the battle for the crucial second place so close.
A nationwide recount of millions of ballot initially deemed invalid when voters punched two, not one, holes in them, has also added to counting delays.
The confusion could form the basis of a legal challenge by the losing parties -- an event that is likely to test Indonesia's courts, which have a reputation for corruption and bizarre rulings.
Despite the mix-up, foreign election observers pronounced Monday's balloting a success.
Former US President Jimmy Carter, who helped monitor the voting, met with Megawati afterward to pay his respects.
"We also expressed our opinion that it was an honest, fair and safe election," Carter told reporters yesterday at the State Palace.
The September run-off and possible legal challenges mean continued political uncertainty in the world's most populous Muslim nation, at least in the short term.
Indonesia has seen three presidents in six years, sectarian and separatist violence and terror attacks by Islamic militants that have claimed 214 lives, most of them foreign tourists.
Last month, Yudhoyono warned that rival supporters might clash if there was a runoff and some supporters reiterated the warning this week.
However, widespread violence -- always a threat in previous years -- is seen as unlikely.
Since Megawati became president in 2001, critics said she had abandoned her promises to help the country's impoverished majority. Instead, she remained aloof amid economic problems and pervasive corruption, they said.