By Andreas Harsono
JAKARTA, Aug. 30, 2004 (IPS) -- On Indonesia's national day on Aug. 17, President Megawati Sukarnoputri arrived at a poor Jakarta neighbourhood to present trophies to the winners among excited residents competing in games.
After about 10 minutes, when it became clear the games would not finish on schedule, Megawati left without handing out a single award. She had to leave in order to spend the rest of the day at the Merdeka Palace with the political elite, overseeing military parades and attending state functions.
In contrast, her opponent in the Sep. 20 presidential election, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired army general, chose to join games with his neighbours in a Jakarta suburban area and later rolled up his sleeves to visit people living in a rubbish dump.
The images of Yudhoyono were on television that night. The front pages of newspapers the next day were dominated by pictures of Yudhoyono joining a sack race. The rather overweight candidate lost the race, but the message he sought to convey had been related throughout Indonesian voters: that he is "a man of the people."
Meantime Megawati, who herself grew up in the palace as the eldest daughter of Indonesia's founding president Sukarno, is perceived by many Indonesian voters as a palace princess.
But politics is indeed much more complicated than the public relations. Two days later on Aug. 19, Megawati pulled off a political maneuver that might well worry the Yudhoyono camp.
She announced the formation of a coalition of her party, the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle, with three other major parties, including the biggest winner in the April parliamentary election, the Golkar Party that was created by former dictator Suharto.
"The most important thing is that voters will understand that we have built a coalition with almost everyone, whether to govern or in the parliament," said Heri Akhmadi, a Megawati aide who heads her campaign team, as if trying to say that the alliance leaves Yudhoyono all alone.
Apart from Golkar, Megawati's other coalition partners are the United Development Party (PPP) and the minor Peace and Prosperous Party (PDS).
Golkar currently controls 127 of the 550 parliamentary seats. Megawati's party has 109 seats while PPP and PDS respectively control 58 and 13 seats. It means that this coalition around Megawati is poised to secure 307, or more than half of parliamentary seats.
It is doubtful whether this coalition will benefit Megawati in the final round of the election. Golkar voters are likely to vote for whom they please, regardless of directives by party leaders, and polling shows most have already decided they will switch to Yudhoyono, whose vice presidential candidate, Jusuf Kalla, is himself a Golkar leader.
According to the latest survey by the Washington-based International Foundation for Election Systems, 63.1 percent of respondents believe that Yudhoyono would be make the best president, beating Megawati who was chosen by 28.5 percent.
But the race is still open. Hank Valentino of IFES Jakarta said Megawati can still do much to challenge Yudhoyono by capitalising on her status as the incumbent. "Megawati has more opportunities to ensure that her message is seen more during this time period," Valentino said.
In the initial round of Indonesia's first ever direct presidential election on Jul. 5, Megawati won 27 percent of the vote, behind Yudhoyono's 33 percent.
But the Yudhoyono camp suffered a setback among some voters when Jusuf Kalla recently called on Chinese Indonesian businessmen to limit the size of their conglomerates and form partnerships with "indigenous Indonesians" to bridge the income gap.
In a recent interview with the magazine 'Tokoh Indonesia' and his website, Kalla praised neighbouring Malaysia's New Economic Policy for giving "indigenous Malaysians" a head start.
He said that economic policies in Indonesia in the 1950s, which strongly favoured "indigenous" Indonesian businesses, had helped businesses like his family's conglomerate Kalla Group, flourish.
The coalition will work on their huge political machinery to garner support for Megawati. They are organising meetings and mobilising their grassroots workers to send the message that Megawati has only ruled for three years and had a lot to do for the country.
Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung, whose conviction for corruption was reversed earlier this year, is to head the campaign machinery of Megawati. He will travel to various parts of Indonesia to campaign for her.
Some smaller parties are also expected to join the coalition. "This coalition is to build the future. We no longer dwell on the past. We have to look forward," Akhbar Tanjung said after the four parties' leaders signed the agreement at a luxury Jakarta hotel.
The last few weeks ahead of the September vote is turning out to be a tussle between Megawati's huge political machinery and Yudhoyono's populist strategy.