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Indonesian General Is Singing Voters’ Tune

Times Staff Writer

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 once fired for refusing to call out troops to save his boss’ job.

Now, as Indonesians prepare to vote Monday 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% of the vote -- more than all his opponents put together. More than 17% were undecided.

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

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“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 Fatah, 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.

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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.

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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.

Last month, the reclusive Megawati held her first news conference since becoming president -- to kick off her election campaign. 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% of the voters.

Making a stronger showing is retired Gen. Wiranto, a former armed forces commander who was recently charged by a U.N. 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% of the vote and the best chance of forcing Yudhoyono, commonly known as SBY, into a runoff.

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Trailing closely behind Megawati in the survey with 10.9% 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 bringing up the rear with 2.4%.

Despite Indonesia’s recent history of turmoil -- including deadly separatist conflicts in Aceh and Papua, and the brief resurgence of headhunting on the island of Borneo -- the election has been peaceful and notable for the civility among the candidates.

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Election rules restricted overt campaigning to a period of 31 days. To prevent clashes among supporters, the candidates were required to follow a schedule that kept them from appearing in the same region as their rivals on the same day. No campaign rallies were allowed after 4 p.m.

Yudhoyono’s advisors believe that the advent of direct elections will weaken the influence of the major parties, which until now have played a dominant role in the country’s politics. The main beneficiary of Indonesia’s shifting politics would appear to be Yudhoyono, leader of the newly formed Democrat Party.

The candidates have avoided negative ads, although Yudhoyono has been the target of a whisper campaign alleging that he is surrounded by Christians and funded by the United States, where he lived for more than two years while attending military training courses.

He began his career as a soldier at Indonesia’s military academy in 1970 and received training at Ft. Benning, Ga., in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1990 and 1991, he spent 18 months in Kansas, attending the Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth and obtaining a master’s degree from Webster University. He also served as chief U.N. military observer in Bosnia-Herzegovina in late 1995.

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Unlike Wiranto, who outranked Yudhoyono when both were in the military, Yudhoyono has avoided being linked to the excesses of the Suharto regime. Moreover, his stature has been enhanced by the way he departed from his two stints as the country’s top security minister.

In 2001, when then-President Abdurrahman Wahid was facing removal for incompetence, Yudhoyono refused to use military force to save the president’s job. Wahid fired him, but the president himself was soon removed from office and Megawati, then vice president, took over.

She quickly reappointed Yudhoyono to his old job. But as they both prepared to run for president this year, Yudhoyono was no longer invited to high-level meetings. After he complained publicly, the president’s husband, Taufik Kiemas, called him childish. Soon after, Yudhoyono resigned, winning great sympathy from the Indonesian public, which loves an underdog.

As he has traveled around the country during the campaign, Yudhoyono has preached a message of democracy, fairness and prosperity. Adopting the slogan “Together We Can,” he has urged his fellow Indonesians to unite to rebuild the country.

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Singing has been a big part of Yudhoyono’s campaign. At a rally in Bali, he interrupted his speech to sing a popular love song, “Rainbow in Your Eyes.” He and Wiranto both sang on the television show “Akademi Fantasi Indosiar,” the Indonesian version of “American Idol.” At a small dinner gathering of supporters at the Intercontinental Hotel in Bali, Yudhoyono joined the band and sang John Lennon’s “Imagine,” with its refrain, “Imagine all the people, living life in peace....”

Asked the next morning in an interview what he envisioned for Indonesia, Yudhoyono was more prosaic. “Well, Indonesia is getting more peaceful, more just and prosperous,” he said. “And I believe very strongly, with hard work, with effective leadership and government, with the unity of the people, we could solve problems we are facing right now.”


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