By Andreas Harsono
Jakarta, 16 April 2004 (IPS) -- A retired army general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is likely to be President Megawati Sukarnoputri's most serious challenger in Indonesia's presidential election in July, according to opinion polls and the views of political analysts.
The race is heating up such that a poll released Wednesday showed that said 84 percent of Indonesians want a new president ahead of the Jul. 5 vote, which will be Indonesia's first direct presidential election.
The poll says that Yudhoyono, also a former member of Megawati's cabinet, is the popular favourite with about 28 percent of the vote in the poll.
Megawati, who wants another term as president, got 14 percent support in the opinion poll. Akbar Tandjung, chairman of the victorious Golkar Party in the Apr. 5 parliamentary election and also eyeing the presidency, was not even among the top five.
The survey, by the London-based group Taylor Nelson, was conducted among 1,016 voters across Indonesia between Mar. 26 and Apr. 1 and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
"It's difficult now to stop Yudhoyono. He is going to be the next president if nothing unusual happens between now and July," said Indonesian activist Liem Sioe Liong of the London-based Tapol human rights group.
Many Indonesians are looking for a leader who is seen to be clean and at the same strong. They also want stability and economic growth that has not quite come back since the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
A common public perception is that Yudhoyono is honest, and his military credentials also creates a view among some that he will bring discipline into his administration.
Megawati, daughter of Indonesia's founding father Sukarno, is seen as a weak leader. She has been credited with bringing political and economic stability to Indonesia, since she came to power in 2001 after Abdurrahman Wahid. But critics say she is too aloof and has done little to crack down on graft or improve living standards for the country's poor.
At the same time, "he (Yudhoyono) is a general but he is more a civilian than a hawkish general," Indonesian political observer Bill Liddle of Ohio State University told Radio 68H here.
As of Friday afternoon, with over 89 million out of a possible 147 million votes in April vote counted electronically, Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDIP) got 17.5 million votes. It was trailing behind Tandjung's Golkar Party by more than one million votes.
In the wake of these results, the Megawati camp is now working to control the damage by moving to reorganise her campaign strategy ahead of the July poll.
In terms of percentage, PDIP secured 19.67 percent of the tally while Golkar led with 21 percent of votes.In the 1999 election, the PDI-P won 33.7 percent of the vote to win the top spot, with Golkar coming second with 22.5 percent.
The workers of Golkar Party, established by Indonesia's authoritarian President Suharto in the late 1960s, are jubilant. "We are already number one. We are the winners of this election and we will fight for the presidency," Tandjung said Wednesday.
Under Indonesia's revised electoral system, Golkar's lead does not mean that its presidential candidate - to be decided at a convention Monday - has an edge. In the Suharto days, members of parliament would vote for the president, but this time, more than 100 million voters are directly casting ballots for president.
But Golkar's bigger numbers in parliament do give it the privilege to have a candidate in the running for the presidency. Election rules provide that only parties that get more than 5 percent of votes can nominate presidential and vice presidential candidates.
Tandjung himself does not automatically become his party's presidential nominee. Critics said his public image has been badly damaged because of his involvement in a corruption case, although the Supreme Court acquitted him.Megawati has also been busy making a last-minute effort to prepare for the presidential race, setting up the "Mega Centre" where her closest advisors are supposed to draw up a new campaign strategy and to pick a running mate.
This is the same strategy used by her rivals, which include Amien Rais, parliamentary speaker, as well as Yudhoyono. Both have asked a number of intellectuals and party thinkers to spearhead their campaign strategy through a think tank.
But heated arguments marked the weekly meeting of Megawati's party on Tuesday, where everyone blamed everyone else, news reports said. In the end, they could not even agree on the establishment of the Mega Centre.
Kwik Kian Gie, a long-time advisor to Megawati and a cabinet member, left before the meeting was over. In an agitated tone, he told the media that he doubted whether the new team could help to restore the public confidence in his party.
"I know nothing about the Mega Centre, I'm not part of it. But how can you convince Indonesian people to vote for one figure in such a short time?" he asked.
Presidential and vice presidential candidates need not come from the same political party, which is why Indonesian politicians are busy horsetrading to assemble winning combinations.
Yudhoyono's upstart Democrat Party secured 6.6 million votes or 7.5 percent of votes as of Friday. While this gives his party room to nominate him for the presidential race, he would need to build an alliance with one or some other political parties to secure this bid for the country's highest post.
Yudhoyono has not said who his running mate would be, but speculation is rife here that would ask businessman Jusuf Kalla to be his vice presidential candidate.The logic is that Yudhoyono is Javanese, a member of the largest ethnic group in Indonesia, and he needs a non-Javanese running mate to gain votes from the outer islands.
Kalla is a Bugis businessman from southern Sulawesi province. Kalla is a Golkar Party presidential nominee, although he is not seen to be a strong contender to Akbar Tandjung.
Tandjung's closest rival for the Golkar presidential nomination is Wiranto, another retired army general, who has been indicted on human rights abuses in East Timor especially after its 1999 independence vote.If the results of surveys are borne out in the coming months, no single candidate would win more than 50 percent of votes in the July election to become Indonesia's first directly elected president.
This would force a September run-off election between the two candidates who get the most number of votes on Jul. 5.