From the squalid slums of Jakarta to the jungles of Irian Jaya to the holiday paradise of Bali, more than 100 million Indonesians embraced a new era of democracy today by casting ballots in the country's first free election in more than four decades.

This parliamentary election in the world's fourth-most populous country comes after more than a year of turbulence, and it marks a giant step in Indonesia's efforts to shed its authoritarian past and begin the uncertain journey toward a democratic future. That process will culminate later this year, when parliament helps choose a new president -- a decision that will determine whether Indonesia has fully cast off 30 years of dictatorship and whether a new generation of leaders can begin restoring political stability and rebuilding a once vibrant economy.

It all seemed highly unlikely just over a year ago, when president Suharto was clinging to power in a country beset by a crumbling economy and widespread protests, with soldiers shooting in the streets and a capital filled with rumors of plots and military coups.

Suharto did step down, and his successor, B.J. Habibie, bowed to popular pressure and opened up the political system. But Habibie has appeared hapless as the country descended into ethnic and religious bloodletting, leading many to fear that the new era of freedom was sending Indonesia to the brink of anarchy.

But today's ballot, like the 17-day election campaign, proceeded remarkably peacefully, belying predictions that the advent of multiparty politics would bring widespread violence. The only major incident reported today came in Tanggerang, an industrial suburb of Jakarta, where a small group of men who were not allowed to vote because they were not registered set fire to ballot boxes.

What happens here matters far beyond Indonesia's borders. As the most populous country in Southeast Asia, Indonesia has for years been the anchor of stability in the region. It has been a reliable ally of the West, sitting astride the strategic Malacca Strait, and a democratic government here would tilt the balance in the region away from paternalistic regimes toward representative democracies. And as the world's largest Muslim country, a successful transition here could demonstrate to such places as Tehran and Cairo that democracy and Islam are not incompatible.

Overall, Indonesians appeared to be energetically embracing their nascent democracy, a concept that most here have never known, the last free election here having taken place in 1955. "This is the key to the country's future," said Horas Purba, a 40-year-old school teacher from a lower middle-class Jakarta neighborhood. "If we mess this up, we fall apart as a nation."

"The aspirations of the people are being met," said Dewi Improuviana, a 29-year-old housewife. "It is good to have more freedom for the people."

To guard against possible fraud, the elections are being monitored by about a half-million domestic observers and 500 foreigners, including 100 from the Atlanta-based Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. The 48 competing political parties also were allowed to station their own monitors at polling places as results were read aloud.

The discredited Suharto showed up early this morning to cast his ballot in a posh Jakarta neighborhood. In a humiliation for the former dictator, Suharto's neighbors seemed to reject the corrupt system he left behind, with returns from that one polling place showing opposition parties winning the bulk of the votes and Suharto's Golkar party getting just 10 percent. As the votes were counted, onlookers roared with laughter at Golkar's paltry performance.

By nightfall, few returns had trickled in from around the vast Indonesian archipelago, and election officials and observers cautioned that it was far too early to discern trends. But scattered results from individual polling places, each with 300 or so voters, showed that in many neighborhoods of the capital, the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, was leading, followed by the National Mandate Party, or PAN.

PDI-P also was reportedly running strong, with 70 percent of the vote or more, in violence-wracked Ambon province, and also in East Timor, where an independence referendum is scheduled for August.

Even without official results, PDI-P officials were already claiming victory. Laksamana Sukardi, the party treasurer and an influential adviser to Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno, said the party's reporting showed PDI-P winning more than 40 percent of the vote nationwide, with 18 percent for Golkar.

At stake in today's election are 462 seats in the 500-member parliament, with the remaining 38 reserved for appointed representatives from the powerful Indonesian armed forces. Later this year, parliament members will join with 200 others -- provincial politicians and representatives of designated "functional groups," such as labor unions and farmers -- to choose the country's next president.

While the vote today is only the first step in a long process, a decisive victory by the PDI-P would make Sukarnoputri the clear front-runner for the presidency. A narrow plurality is likely to muddle the picture and make it more likely that bargaining and back-room dealmaking could hand the presidency to an alternative candidate, possibly Habibie.

To head off such a scenario, Sukarnoputri and the leaders of the two other main opposition parties, Islamic scholar Amien Rais of PAN and Abdurrahman Wahid of the Muslim-based National Awakening Party plan to meet Tuesday in a public show of unity to block Habibie from remaining in power. The opposition parties jointly were expected to win a parliamentary majority.

Special correspondent Atika Shubert contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Historic Indonesian Election: A crowd looks on as presidential candidate Megawati Sukarnoputri, left, and her stepsister Karina Sukarnoputri prepare to vote in their country's first free election since 1955. (Photo ran on page A01)

CAPTION: At a seaside polling station in Dili, East Timor, a line of voters stretches to the surf. More than 100 million Indonesians cast ballots in the election.

CAPTION: An election official, left, helps an elderly voter at a polling booth in a Jakarta suburb. Above, an East Timorese man checks his voter registration card.