Indonesians headed to the polls on Thursday for legislative elections that will determine the upcoming presidential ballot candidates as well as the composition of the national parliament and regional assemblies.

Early turnout in what is the third election since the fall of the dictator Suharto in 1998 was slower than in previous years but appeared to be proceeding largely smoothly.

The main exception was in the easternmost province of Papua, where police said some 80 people, believed to be members of the poorly-organised separatist Free Papua Movement, mounted seemingly coordinated attacks on several locations, including a university, in the early hours.

Several people were killed in the violence where the attackers were mostly armed with bows and arrows, spears and petrol bombs.

The slowing but comparatively still robust economy in the world’s third largest democracy is proving the critical issue for many of the 171m voters, reflected in soaring support for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party.

It is expected to top the polls, with more than a fifth of the vote, up from fifth in 2004 with 7.5 per cent of the vote. The opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle is predicted to come second and Golkar, led by Vice President Jusuf Kalla, third.

The biggest losers in the world’s most populous majority-Muslim country are likely to be the Islamic parties, whose legislators have failed to convince people of either their competence or probity over the last five years.

But myriad organisational hiccups, particularly over widespread errors in the voter list, and the election’s complexity – 1.64m people from 38 parties are contesting the polls – mean many people are either undecided or fearful they will vote incorrectly.

“There are so many faces it’s a blur,” giggled Astrid Yuspriatmo, as she arrived at her Jakarta polling station to be confronted by a total of 700 names on the three ballot papers.

“Choosing who to vote for is like reading a newspaper,” said Amir, after taking a relatively rapid three minutes to make his selections at a south Jakarta polling station.

The disorganisation within the General Election Commission was encapsulated at a polling station in Jakarta’s Bendungan Hilir neighbourhood, where officials deliberately misinformed voters about how they could vote.

“We know the rules [we’re telling people] have been changed but we don’t want to confuse the people,” said one man, who refused to give his name. “We want to keep things simple.”

Official results will not be declared for a month but several so-called “quick counts” are scheduled to be announced on Thursday evening. These take the returns from 200-odd carefully selected polling stations to extrapolate national figures. In 2004 they differed by less than half a percentage point from the official result.

Candidates for the July 8 presidential election have to secure the support of a party, or coalition of parties, that won 20 per cent of the 560 seats in the national parliament or 25 per cent of the popular vote. Mr Yudhoyono is well ahead in the polls.

Additional reporting by Taufan Hidayat

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