Fri, Jun 25, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Indonesian politicians sing for votes

RAZZMATAZZ Singing has almost become a required skill for presidential candidates, as Indonesians feel that combative politics are not part of their culture


Indonesian presidential candidate and former chief security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, right, sings as Mawar, a finalist of the first season of ``Indosiar Fame Academy,'' listens at a recording of the show's final second in Jakarta on Saturday.


Indonesia's two leading presidential candidates rarely spar over policies. But they did face off on a concert stage -- crooning and swinging their hips on a local version of American Idol.

The recent appearance by the two retired generals -- one of whom has been indicted for war crimes -- underscored the lightweight nature of the campaign for the July 5 election.

In a country facing separatist insurgencies, terrorism and crushing poverty, celebrities and razzmatazz dominate the race rather than Western-style debates on policies and platforms.

All five presidential hopefuls are long-standing members of Indonesia's political, military and religious elite from before the fall of former dictator Suharto in 1998. Unlike the rough-and-tumble of Western campaigns, they are reluctant to publicly criticize each other's records, policies or characters.

Indonesians often say the combative politics favored in other democracies are not part of their culture, and some are concerned that open criticism could spark clashes between supporters.

This leaves the July 5 election -- the first in which Indonesians will elect their head of state directly and a milestone in the country's transition to democracy -- little more than a talent contest.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri regularly urges her supporters to vote for the "most beautiful candidate" in her campaign speeches around the sprawling archipelago.

Singing has almost become a required skill for the candidates, with all of them regularly crooning for their supporters at rallies or on television.

Megawati, third in the race according to opinion polls, was invited to appear in Saturday's talent show, but sent her daughter instead.

The show, called Indosiar Fame Academy after the TV station that airs it, is a carbon copy of American Idol, and has topped ratings here.

General Wiranto took the stage first, crooning the classic Beautiful Indonesia. Occasionally, he reached over into the audience to touch the hands of fans packed into a convention center. Wiranto, who is polling just ahead of Megawati, has released an album entitled For You, My Indonesia.

Last year, a UN-backed tribunal indicted him over his alleged role in the destruction of East Timor by Indonesian troops during its independence vote in 1999. The roars of support for him on Saturday shows that few here are concerned about those charges.

Former army general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, dressed in a black leather jacket, chose a more uptempo number by a local rock group. He received the loudest applause.

"His singing was the best," said one TV viewer, primary school teacher Ellin Winarlin. "He showed how clever he was by choosing a song popular with young people."

The appearances on TV shows contrast sharply with the candidates' general reluctance to criticize each other or debate any of the outstanding issues facing the country, such as a moribund economy, separatist conflicts and endemic corruption.

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