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Indonesia on eve of milestone vote

The world's largest Muslim nation elects its first president by direct democracy Monday.

By Associated Press
Published July 4, 2004

JAKARTA, Indonesia - Indonesia's young democracy moves up a notch Monday 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 trails in voter surveys behind Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the former security minister who resigned from the Cabinet months ago seeking to replace Megawati.

"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 reinforcement for 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 were 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 plaguing 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 one candidate tops 50 percent in Monday's vote, 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 - a system 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. He sings at his campaign rallies; has written poetry about faith, nature and nationalism; played guitar in a band; and studied at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

His background as a soldier ties him to the era of military dictatorship, 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 April parliamentary elections, 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 a wave of support from the poor, who saw her as a champion of reform because she 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.

Megawati's administration restored economic stability after that upheaval, but the lure of other Asian markets - China in particular - has caused a continual decline in foreign investments.

"Although (Megawati) stabilized the economy, jobs weren't created," Winters said. "A stable exchange rate, soaring stock market and low interest rates don't do much for the common people."

Ahmad Latif, a street vendor selling fried rice in Jakarta, said he voted for Megawati's party five years ago but would support Yudhoyono.

"Life has been a hard burden," Latif said. "I hope a new president will make it easier to make a living."

[Last modified July 4, 2004, 01:00:39]

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