By Andreas Harsono
Jakarta, 31 May 2004 (IPS) -- On the eve of Indonesia's month-long presidential campaign due to begin Tuesday, a retired army general indicted for war crimes in East Timor seems to be taking centre-stage in the country's first-ever direct elections for its head of state on July 5.
Wiranto, the former Indonesian military commander, was a surprise nomination as presidential candidate for Golkar, Indonesia's most popular political party that won the largest number of parliamentary seats in the Apr. 5 legislative election with 21 percent of the vote.
Since then, he has been hard at work seeking alliances with Golkar's rivals to shift the political balance in his favour as he competes against four other candidates including the incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri.
Just hours after Wiranto received the nod from delegates at the Golkar party convention weeks ago, more than 100 of his supporters gathered at a small hotel in the Senayan area in central Jakarta. It was after midnight and they were extremely exhausted.
"This is only the knockout round and we are soon to enter the semi-final. The real work is yet to begin," he told his party workers while also receiving several visitors, among whom included Rizal Ramli, a former chief minister for the economy during the administration of past president Abdurrahman Wahid.
Wahid's Nation Awakening Party or PKB came third in the April parliamentary election with 11 percent of the vote.
But Ramli is not an ordinary economist. He used to be a student leader in the 1970s and was jailed under the authoritarian Suharto regime.
"He was one of the smartest among my Indonesian students," said Gus Papanek, a Boston University professor, who once taught Ramli in the United States.
Ramli went to the hotel in Senayan with a political proposal rather than to congratulate Wiranto, the former adjutant to deposed dictator Suharto, on his presidential nomination.
Up his sleeve was a shrewd strategy to give Wiranto a leading edge against the other candidates.
Ramli urged Wiranto build a coalition with PKB and it was an offer on a silver platter for the former general.
In a coup over his rivals, Wiranto secured PKB's endorsement -- the country's third largest party, which is linked to the 40-million- strong grassroots organisation Nadhlatul Ulama.
"I believe if Gus Dur comes together with Wiranto, Megawati will be finished," Ramli said in a March public meeting, referring to Wahid by his popular nickname 'Gus Dur.'
But Indonesia's election commission has barred Wahid, who is half-blind, from running in the presidential race on health grounds.
Wiranto's running mate, instead, will be Solahuddin Wahid, a younger brother of the former president.
Foreign bankers, however, are wary of Ramli if he is to be restored to his old job under a Wiranto presidency. Many believe he will imperil any hopes of foreign investment in Indonesia because of his bitter relationship with international lending agencies.
The Jakarta-based 'Tempo' magazine reported that against all other presidential candidates, Wiranto is the toughest competitor with the support of two big parties, which makes him a major force in Indonesian politics.
Wiranto is backed by Golkar's well-oiled political machinery, flush with funds from mysterious donors, and PKB's grassroot support among villagers in Indonesia's most populated island of Java.
But the former general's international reputation could be the Achilles heel of his candidacy.
In Dili, the capital of East Timor, a U.N.-backed special tribunal issued an arrest warrant for Wiranto in early May for his alleged role in the 1999 violence, when the former Indonesian province held a referendum on independence. Wiranto headed Indonesia's army at the time of the vote.
The referendum sparked a murderous rampage by Indonesian troops and their militia proxies, which also destroyed much of East Timor's infrastructure and reduced Dili to smoking rubble.
Last year, U.N. prosecutors working in the tiny nation indicted Wiranto for his alleged command responsibility for "murder, deportation and persecution" committed during 1999.
Wiranto has denied any wrongdoing, saying the indictment was an effort to undermine his candidacy in the Jul. 5 presidential elections.
In a gesture of reconciliation, he even met East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao on May 28 in the Indonesian island of Bali, to extend his hand of friendship.
The election, however, will also test the political machinery of the other four candidates.
Megawati has set up a 'Mega Centre' to conduct her campaign nationwide and recruited some top economists to help draft her economic platform. "The prospect of the economic growth in 2005 will be better and a five percent growth might be achieved," wrote columnist Mohammad Sadli of the 'Business News' daily, predicting another term for the president.
"But it is not enough to overcome unemployment," he warned.
But Wiranto's camp still has a lot of work to do. He trails the frontrunner Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, another retired army general, by a wide margin.
An April poll by the Indonesian Survey Institute indicated that Yudhoyono could win 40 percent of the vote, way above his main rivals Megawati or Wiranto who were predicted to be able to garner only 14.7 and 5.9 percent respectively.
The two other candidates, Amien Rais and Hamzah Haz, lag well behind Yudhoyono. A runoff between the top two is required if no candidate wins more than 50 percent in July.
Yudhoyono has won converts across all walks of life through his strategic media campaign, despite entering the presidential race with minimal funds.
And unlike Wiranto, his military career seems untainted even though he was the former general's subordinate.
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