For the past few weeks, as opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri barnstormed across this sprawling archipelago campaigning for today's parliamentary elections, a simple hand sign has become a ubiquitous symbol of reform, of protest, and of Indonesia's readiness to reject its old order.

The sign is made by touching the thumb and first finger together, to make a circle, like the universally recognized expression for "okay." But for Megawati, who uses the hand sign at every rally and even has created a song about it, the symbol carries several meanings.

It reminds supporters to vote for her party's icon -- a mean-looking bull with a white nose inside a circle on the ballot. Six political parties all use bulls as their symbols, but Megawati's is the only one inside a circle. And as Megawati explains, the sign has another meaning: The circle is round, or whole, bulat in the Bahasa Indonesia language. And soon, her party's struggle will have come full circle. As she puts it, "the struggle is now complete."

Judging from the size of the crowds, the pre-election surveys and the views of Indonesian and foreign political analysts, Megawati may be right. Her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, seems poised to become the largest party in parliament, favored to win a plurality, but not an outright majority, of seats. The ruling Golkar party, which has dominated Indonesian politics for 30 years under the corrupt and discredited Suharto regime, is likely to be decimated. The party, which normally claims 70 percent of the vote, will be lucky to win a third of that, analysts say.

That's because Megawati and her party have attracted support from a broad and diverse cross-section of the country, from urban slum-dwellers who want jobs to ethnic Chinese concerned about a repeat of the ethnic violence that wracked Jakarta and other cities last year.

"I'll probably vote for PDI-P," said Slamet, 43, an unemployed man in an East Jakarta slum called Senen. "I'm not sure about her program, but I'm sure that Megawati will give priority to giving jobs to the little people. If she becomes president, she will be on the poor people's side."

For Megawati, a victory for her party today will be sweet vindication. As a teenager, she saw Suharto oust her father, Sukarno, from the presidency in 1967 and place him under virtual house arrest until he died three years later. Suharto, an army general, then set about trying to erase the Sukarno legacy by essentially rewriting Indonesian history.

Megawati entered politics in the 1980s, joining one of the two small officially sanctioned opposition parties. But when she took over the leadership of that party, Suharto orchestrated her ouster -- creating a wave of national sympathy for her and turning her into a symbol of the popular cry for democracy.

If her newly reconstituted PDI-P scores big over the 47 other competing parties, Megawati will have taken a giant step toward fulfilling her dream of reclaiming her father's house at Merdeka, the presidential palace, which he occupied in 1949 when he became Indonesia's first constitutional president. She would join a roster of Asian women -- Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, the Philippines' Corazon Aquino and Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto -- who have risen to power in the place of martyred men.

But Megawati faces a long road with many pitfalls in the upcoming presidential battle. Her party may emerge as the most popular choice, but the presidency won't be decided until later this year by a select group of just 700 people. And the pro-reform forces might well find their victory at the polls eroded by back-room deal-making.

Today's election is for 462 seats in a 500-member parliament, but there are another 38 seats reserved for appointees from the powerful armed forces. Later this summer, the parliament will be joined by an additional 200 people -- 135 provincial representatives and 65 appointed members of designated "functional groups" such as labor unions and farmers -- to form a super-body that will choose the president.

It is possible for Megawati's PDI-P party to win the bulk of the seats in parliament but have its influence eroded in that expanded body, since the rules for choosing the appointed members are unclear. Her chances would be bolstered if a coalition with other pro-reform parties holds together after the election, but it is not clear if their competing agendas and ambitions will allow it.

Also, the super-body is not bound to vote for one of the declared presidential candidates or even one of the party leaders.

And there are signs of opposition forming to a possible Megawati presidency. Sunday, imams at several Jakarta mosques were said to have told worshipers to vote for Islamic-based parties that would promote the interests of Muslims in this predominantly Muslim country. Some conservative Muslims are uncomfortable with the idea of a woman president, and PDI-P is a secular, nationalist party that believes religion and politics should be kept separate.

With so many questions ahead, many analysts were cautioning that today's vote should not be viewed as the culmination of Indonesia's move from authoritarianism to democracy, but rather, just the start. "This is not the end of the process; it's the beginning of the transition process, and it's a precursor," said Kenneth D. Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, a foreign group here to monitor the elections.

There are several factors that indicate Indonesia's experiment with democracy is succeeding. Foremost is that the campaign, which officially began on May 19, proceeded remarkably peacefully, with only a few scattered reports of clashes between rival party members. This defies widespread predictions that the campaigning would lead to violence, or even a repeat of the destructive rioting of May 1998, which left more than 1,000 people dead.

In addition, this election marks the first time that the powerful Indonesian military has remained neutral. The soldiers still show no sign of interfering in the process, and most analysts expect they will simply back whoever who appears to be winning.

Polls opened here today under cloudy skies and occasional showers, but that didn't stop large crowds from forming outside voting stations.

"I feel this is my duty," said Bramanopo, a computer programmer in his mid-40s, who was voting at a soccer field set up with booths and folding chairs. "Before. I didn't feel I had to go to elections because I already knew who was the winner. Today, I don't know who will be the winner. I have a choice."

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, leading an election monitoring group, said he saw the elections as a chance for the country to end ethnic violence and a crippling economic meltdown. "I hope it will be honest, fair, peaceful," he said. "I don't have any doubt that it will bring an end to the violence."

Indonesians Vote

Indonesians vote Monday in their first democratic election since 1955 for a new legislature. A few months later, a new president will be elected by the People's Consultative Assembly, made up of the legislature and 200 appointees.

Eligible voters: 127.6 million

At stake: 462 seats in the legislature, the People's Representation Council. Another 38 seats are reserved for military appointees.

Voting system: Seats are distributed on a proportional basis from party lists. There are 232 seats reserved for the island of Java, where more than 60 percent of the voters live; another 103 will go to the island of Sumatra, the second most populous island; the rest will be distributed among other areas.


48 parties are fielding candidates; the four largest are:

* Golkar, the ruling party, led by President B.J. Habibie. Polls say he is deeply unpopular and has had only modest success in stemming Indonesia's economic crisis.

* Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle. The party, led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia's charismatic founding father Sukarno.

* National Mandate Party, led by Amien Rais, who boldly threw his support behind mass student protests demanding the ouster of Suharto.

* Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Muslim group, which claims 40 million followers. It is led by Abdurrahman Wahid, who is respected as a moral force, even by non-Muslims.

SOURCE: Reuters

CAPTION: Ethnic Chinese supporters of opposition candidate Megawati Sukarnoputri drive Jakarta streets and display the hand symbol that signifies her party.