Indonesia readies for first direct election


JIMBARAN, Indonesia - Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a retired four-star general who likes to sing about peace and love. He served two presidents as security minister but was fired once for refusing to call out troops to save his boss' job.

Now, as Indonesians prepare to vote tomorrow in the country's first direct presidential election, the low-key general has vaulted to the top in public opinion polls, outdistancing all four of his rivals, including President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

The biggest question of the election season is whether he will receive enough votes in the first round to win the presidency outright and render a September runoff unnecessary. An independent poll released Thursday showed him leading with 43.5 percent of the vote - more than all his opponents put together. More than 17 percent were undecided.

Yudhoyono, 54, professes to be at a loss to explain his popularity.

"I am trying also to know why," he said in an interview during a campaign stop here on the island of Bali. "But based on the survey, I have to tell you that people may like me because of my personality, my vision, my seriousness in handling many things in this country."

For Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, the election is a landmark in the development of democracy. Casting aside a half-century-old electoral college system, the nation adopted direct presidential election - offering a level of democracy not enjoyed even in the United States.

"It is a milestone for us," said Eep Syaifullah, political science professor at Indonesia University in Jakarta. "We have the right to choose directly our leader, which has never happened in the past. It doesn't matter who wins - the most important thing is that the people are now in the center of the political arena."

Under rules designed to ensure fairness, the campaign period officially ended Thursday. Perhaps because of the novelty of the process, the race often resembled a beauty contest more than the bare-knuckles campaigns common in the West.

The matronly Megawati liked to remind voters that she was the only woman in the race.

"Choose the most beautiful candidate on the ballot paper, the one with the mole on her right cheek," the 57-year-old president urged.

It was perhaps an unfortunate image. In Indonesian, the word for mole also means fly dung. But then, the president has a big image problem.

During her three years in office, she has done little to address the country's urgent problems. More than 40 million of the country's 220 million people are unemployed, according to government figures. Indonesia's currency, the rupiah, recently fell to its lowest level since 2002. Corruption is widespread in all branches of government. Foreign investors have been scared away by uncertainty over the country's future.

Under her watch, suicide car bombings by Islamic militants have killed more than 200 people. Illegal loggers are cutting down the country's rainforests at a record rate. Impoverished slash-and-burn farmers recklessly clear land by setting fire to the jungle, casting a thick pall of smoke in recent weeks over neighboring Malaysia.

To kick off her election campaign last month, the reclusive Megawati held her first news conference since becoming president. Even then, she was a bit testy. When a reporter asked what she had learned during her tenure, she replied, "Do you think it's easy to manage 220 million people who all have their own opinions?"

Some analysts say Megawati would be lucky to finish in the top two and win a spot in the runoff. According to the poll released Thursday by the International Foundation for Elections Systems, Megawati has the support of only 11.7 percent of the voters.

Making a stronger showing is a retired general, Wiranto, a former armed forces commander who was recently charged by a United Nations tribunal with crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the 1999 slaughter of more than 1,000 people in the former Indonesian province of East Timor. The poll showed Wiranto, who uses only one name, with 14.2 percent of the vote and the best chance of forcing Yudhoyono, commonly known as SBY, into a runoff.

Trailing closely behind Megawati with 10.9 percent was Assembly Speaker Amien Rais, a former political science professor and leader of the democracy movement that helped topple the military regime of former President Suharto.

Also in the race is Vice President Hamzah Haz, who is directing his appeal toward conservative Muslims. Haz, who has two official wives, once described the United States as "the king of terrorists" and said the Sept. 11 attacks would "cleanse the sins of the U.S." He once invited accused terrorist leader Abu Bakar Bashir to dinner. His message, however, is not attracting much support in moderate Indonesia: The poll shows him with 2.4 percent.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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