How high can Bambang go?

ASIAN AGENDA: INDONESIAN ELECTIONS

His star is rising but the presidential race remains unpredictable, with more twists and turns likely in the next two months.

The political fortunes of Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono are on a high as his soaring popularity has made him the favourite to win the presidency in July.

But will the Bambang bubble burst?

Two months is a long time in politics. After all, it was only a few months ago that Mr Bambang himself trailed incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri in the popularity stakes.

Now the latest survey by the United States-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems shows that support for the 54-year-old retired general has soared to 30 per cent.

Ms Megawati, by contrast, is far behind with 14 per cent.

Last on the list is another retired general, Mr Wiranto, with just 2.2 per cent.

Indonesian polls have come up with similar findings.

The Lembaga Studi Institut (LSI), for example, found that 40 per cent of those surveyed now prefer Mr Bambang, following the success of his small Democrat Party in last month’s parliamentary elections. The LSI poll also revealed that he was the top choice of the 40 million supporters of the much-courted Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) – far ahead even of its chairman and spiritual leader.

Another survey by Soegeng Sarjadi Syndicated, which assessed him with running mate Jusuf Kalla, found that the joint ticket stood the best chance of being elected to office.

So why has Mr Bambang become the favourite? Much of it boils down to image.

With his imposing frame and clean-cut good looks, he is the poster boy of the month.

His face even appears on T-shirts with the words ‘I love SBY’.

But SBY, as he is known here, is also a man of substance. He has a good track record as a military officer and as a member of Ms Megawati’s Cabinet.

As one of the most high-profile ministers, he became a voice of reason and authority.

He appeared on television almost every other day with headline news on terrorism, Aceh, Papua and Poso.

That profile increased dramatically when he quit the government after falling out with the President and her garrulous husband Taufik Kiemas, who chided him publicly for ‘acting like a child’.

Many also see Mr Bambang and Mr Jusuf, a successful businessman from South Sulawesi, as a force for change in Indonesia. They have the reformasi tag.

The rising popularity of Mr Bambang has become such a thorn in the side of his enemies that they have taken to trying to smear his name in recent weeks.

One rumour making its rounds in Jakarta is that Mr Bambang’s election campaign is being funded by Mr Tommy Winata, an Indonesian-Chinese businessman who allegedly runs gambling operations across the country.

Another suggests that he had the backing of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and had received US$50 million (S$85 million) from Washington.

The mudslinging has also touched on religion. His detractors accuse his party of being led by Christians and his wife of being a Muslim convert.

Mr Bambang has put up a brave front to reject such allegations. But the concern in his camp is whether they will erode people’s confidence in him over time.

Another potential problem is political machinery. The Bambang-Jusuf partnership does not have a major party network behind it. Mr Jusuf dumped Golkar to join forces with the former security czar.

In fact, Mr Bambang’s Democrat Party mustered just over 7 per cent of the national vote in the general election. On paper, this does not look encouraging.

But their backers suggest that the dynamics in the July presidential election are all about the man, not the machinery.

A senior adviser to Mr Bambang explains: ‘He is a fresh face appearing on the stage at a time when there is a mood for change. Indonesians will gravitate towards this man whom they see challenging the status quo and the past. He is the third force.’

In reality, though, his supporters know that clinching the presidency will involve working the ground. To do that, the two leaders need to synchronise their approaches.

There have been teething problems in merging both teams. The Bambang camp is perceived to be ‘academic and theoretical’ while Mr Jusuf’s group is led by businessmen who prefer ‘action to talking’.

But differences are being resolved as they get down to the hard task of working to build a network from the provincial level right down to districts and villages – many areas in which the Bambang name is still new.

Individually, Mr Bambang and Mr Jusuf have been touring the country to touch base with key personalities.

Mr Jusuf has in recent weeks met prominent Islamic figures like Nurcholish Madjid and A.A. Gymnastiar to cultivate the Muslim ground that will be critical in tipping the balance in the election.

Mr Bambang’s focus, on the other hand, is on the nationalist camp.

Sources reveal that he is meeting key members of Golkar and Ms Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P) to get several of them on board.

These meetings could count for something but until now they have yet to seal a deal with any party.

That means they will have a lot of coalition building to do during the run-up to the second round of the presidential election in September.

But will there be anyone else left in the running by then?

Mr Bambang’s major rivals are now trying to galvanise as much support as they can at the elite level and grassroots.

One of them is Mr Wiranto, the retired four-star general who served in the last days of the Suharto regime as military commander.

His surprise nomination by Golkar sparked protests by rights groups at home who describe him as a war criminal for being involved in the 1999 East Timor imbroglio.

It is also an open secret that Washington would prefer a Bambang presidency. But do the poor in Indonesia care about an endorsement from the US?

Despite his historical baggage, however, Mr Wiranto is a more recognisable name than his rival. He has also promised the stability of the good old Suharto days.

Like Mr Bambang, he offers the prospect of firm leadership.

Mr Wiranto also has a huge war chest and network. They helped him beat Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung against all odds at the party convention.

He will draw on the same machinery for his run at the presidency. This time he is likely to get backing from Golkar and other parties as well.

But the Wiranto camp fears that subversive elements might undermine him. One of them could be Mr Akbar.

His greatest fear in lending the general full support is that it could bring down his own standing in Golkar. A victorious Mr Wiranto might try to place his men in the all-powerful central executive board of the party instead.

An adviser to Mr Wiranto explains: ‘Akbar is concerned about his own position. It will be suicidal for him to support Wiranto. He might formally acknowledge him as the presidential candidate but could get party branches to vote for Bambang.’

There is one other imponderable for Mr Wiranto: Can he get others on board?

His ideal scenario is to team up with NU chairman Hasyim Muzadi with the blessings of former president Abdurrahman Wahid who still wields enormous influence in the country’s largest Muslim organisation. This alliance will almost certainly bring him the support of the NU-linked PKB.

But chances of getting Mr Hasyim appear slim, leaving Mr Wiranto with little choice but to turn to others in NU, like Mr Solahuddin Wahid, or even within Golkar for a running mate.

Mr Hasyim is veering towards Ms Megawati, and that would strengthen the President’s hand in her own battle to stay in power if she can get other parties to join her coalition.

But the thinking here is that she stands little chance against either general in the second round.

Ms Megawati’s popularity is waning even with the Sukarno name once thought to have a symbolic hold on the wong cilik.

The results of the general election point to one indisputable fact: The older established parties like Golkar and PDI-P have lost ground. People want a new face.

There will be twists and turns along the way in a seemingly unpredictable race. It is not going to be a cakewalk but Mr Bambang is the one to watch.

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