Sun, Jul 04, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Ex-general poised for win election

A TIME FOR CHANGE Indonesian President Megawati's perceived aloofness to the plight of the poor is what will likely sweep her from power tomorrow, analysts say


A supporter of Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri holds packages of ''Megawati'' cigarettes in Jakarta, yesterday. The cigarettes are part of Megawati's election campaign. Voting begins tomorrow in the presidential election.


Indonesia's young democracy moves up a notch tomorrow with its first direct presidential election, and voters appear set to dump the incumbent and choose a poetry-writing, guitar-playing ex-general with a Mr. Clean image.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri is trailing in voter surveys to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the former security minister who resigned from her Cabinet months ago to seek her job.

"Indonesians feel very let down by Megawati. The image that she cared for the common people fell apart during her presidency," said Daniel Sparingga, a political analyst from Airlangga University. "Many just want her replaced by a more approachable leader who can fix the country's problems."

A victory for Yudhoyono is likely to be seen as a reinforcement of the war on terrorism, judging by his decisive response to the 2002 bombings on the island of Bali that killed more than 200 people. Hundreds of suspected Islamic extremists were arrested and about 40 convicted. Three were sentenced to death.

But terrorism has not been a big issue in the election campaign. What matters is a widespread perception that during her nearly four years in office, Megawati has failed to follow up on her early economic successes and clean up the corruption that plagues daily life.

The same pollsters who accurately predicted the outcome of the April parliamentary election now show Yudhoyono leading with about 40 percent. Neither Megawati nor any other contender has more than 15 percent, and a fifth of voters remain undecided. If Yudhoyono tops 50 percent, no runoff election will be needed.

This presidential election, coming six years after President Suharto's 32-year dictatorship was overthrown, is the first by universal suffrage. Previous presidents were elected by lawmakers. That system was widely abused under Suharto.

On the campaign trail, Yudhoyono has not laid out any specifics about how he would improve living standards and ease unemployment, which exceeds 20 percent.

Still, the soft-spoken 54-year old is widely perceived as a politician with a common touch and the clout to deliver badly needed reforms.

His background as a soldier ties him to the era of military dictatorship, still a sore point among liberals and human rights activists. But that negative tends to be obscured by a perception that the civilians who took charge after Suharto's 1998 overthrow have failed to deliver.

Megawati, the fourth civilian president, seems shakier than ever. In parliamentary elections in April her party lost more than a third of the votes it won in the first free post-Suharto legislative elections in 1999.

At that time, Megawati rode to victory on a wave of support from the poor who saw her as a champion of reform because she had opposed Suharto, and who admired her simply for being the daughter of Sukarno, founding father of the modern Indonesian republic.

The challenge of ruling the world's largest Muslim nation is immense: 13,000 islands spread across three time zones, wracked by armed insurgencies at its eastern and western extremities, suffused with poverty and corruption, misruled by generals for decades, and always vulnerable to restive religious and ethnic forces.

The economy has improved, albeit slowly, after the disastrous Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, when it shrank by 15 percent in a single year.

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