Razzle-dazzle battle

ASIAN AGENDA : INDONESIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS

Crunch time for Indonesian presidential candidates.

The razzle-dazzle begins tomorrow. Tooting horns, banging drums and waving flags and banners, thousands will take to the streets across Indonesia for the start of the July 5 presidential election campaign.

Five contenders and their running mates will fight for the country’s top job. Besides mudslinging, rivals will be making bizarre promises as colourful as an artist’s palette.

But underlying the heated atmospherics – and the festive mood where local dancers gyrate and squirm to cheering crowds – the month-long campaign could significantly do one other thing: expose the strengths and weaknesses of each presidential aspirant.

Presidential frontrunner Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is soaring high in opinion polls. At least three surveys in recent months have ranked him the No. 1 contender.

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, is also a man of substance. He has a good track record as a military officer and as a member of President Megawati Sukarnoputri’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 his running mate Jusuf Kalla, a successful businessman from South Sulawesi, as a force for change in Indonesia. They have the reformasi tag.

His reform agenda, and its limitations, can be found in a smart blue booklet titled Vision For Change, which he outlined at a seminar last week in Singapore organised by the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies and The Straits Times.

The agenda sets the enigmatic general miles apart from his key rivals – incumbent Ms Megawati and former military commander Wiranto – in terms of defining what needs to be done to bring back the good old days in Indonesia.

Mr Bambang is popular on paper. His detractors, though, are loath to believe opinion polls which they say are biased.

The campaign period will give us the best clue yet on his popularity.

Crowd turnout will show whether his support base is confined to just urban centres, as his critics charge, or whether its reach extends to the rural heartland in and out of Java.

It will also reveal whether Mr Bambang has the machinery for a sustained campaign. His small Democrat Party won just 7 per cent of votes in the April general election.

Are its tentacles long and wide enough to cover the sprawling archipelago to mount an effective charge to win voters?

This does not seem to bother his biggest rival Wiranto, who finds himself at the other end of the pole – backed by a mammoth party machinery but dented by a poor image at home and abroad, given accusations of human right violations in the 1999 imbroglio in former East Timor.

It is an open secret that Washington would prefer a Bambang presidency, even if he is on a charm offensive to win over the international community.

But do the poor in Indonesia care about an endorsement from the United States?

Despite his historical baggage, Mr Wiranto offers the prospect of firm leadership. He also has a huge war chest and network which helped him beat Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung, against all odds, at the party convention.

The Wiranto camp has long believed that its machinery will do the job to win the presidency.

Mr Wiranto now has two major parties behind him – Golkar, which won the most seats in Parliament in the election, and the Nation Awakening Party (PKB), which is linked to the Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation.

Will the machinery go his way or in a different direction? Again, the campaign will provide telling answers on whether the Golkar, PKB and NU branches are solidly behind the former military commander.

Clearly, it is not going to be easy for him to galvanise support. NU members, for example, traditionally do not vote in a single block. Part of the NU vote could go to its chairman Hasyim Muzadi, who has teamed up with Ms Megawati, and Mr Bambang.

Mr Wiranto faces another problem. He does not have the full backing of Golkar, with subversive elements in the party – led by Mr Akbar – trying to block his chances.

Caught in a tug-of-war with his enemy, Mr Akbar is in a Catch-22 dilemma.

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.

But not supporting him leaves him open to accusations that could further weaken his grip on party cadres desperate to return to power, and see this as Golkar’s best chance.

The savvy politician is treading the line carefully. He has hedged his bets on all the frontrunners.

If Mr Wiranto is defeated in the first phase, Mr Akbar could play the kingmaker’s role in the run-off. The Golkar vote could easily shift the balance of power in favour of either Mr Bambang or Ms Megawati if they enter the second round.

The President is the third major force in the equation. The campaign could do several crucial things for her.

For one, it offers her a chance to cultivate the ground and make up for the devastating loss of her Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) in the legislative election.

The party has been trying to revamp her image to get closer to the wong cilik or little people. The game plan, drawn up more than a month ago, had been for her to leave her palace cocoon to crisscross the vast archipelago with one mission: to win precious votes.

She has been kissing babies, mingling more with farmers, fishermen and labourers and explaining government policies. But some believe she needs to do more. They argue that she is still steeped in the ‘Air Force One syndrome’.

A senior PDI-P source noted: ‘In 1999, she was just an opposition figure. She did not have any resources and was forced many times to stay overnight in provinces she was travelling to.

‘Now she has a private jet, her own Air Force One, that allows her to spend just a few hours in every region she visits. There was no chance to talk to the people. She was seen as distant and aloof.’

Ms Megawati’s symbolic appeal is in her name. She is former president Sukarno’s daughter. Right now, she has a core support base of close to 20 per cent, mostly diehard Sukarnoists.

She could also capture votes from the NU through her partnership with Mr Hasyim. The NU leader might not be able to capture the majority but he could get a decent share, given the backing of other prominent clerics like Mr Abdullah Abbas, formerly a strong supporter of ex-president Abdurrahman Wahid.

Loyalists argue that with the resources of the state at hand – and taking advantage of the campaign period to demolish the image of rivals tainted by links to the Suharto regime – she could still clinch the presidency.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. The prevailing mood in Indonesia today is one for change. Indonesians are seriously considering alternatives.

National Assembly chairman Amien Rais is certainly one of them. But he is not in the same league as the top three candidates. His National Mandate Party could only manage about 6 per cent of the national vote in the parliamentary election.

Six other parties might have declared their support for him. He also has the backing of the Muhammadiyah, the country’s second-largest Muslim organisation.

But the Amien-Siswono ticket is at best a dark horse, facing an uphill battle in terms of national popularity and securing funds for his election campaign.

Likewise for current Vice-President Hamzah Haz, who is running together with former transport minister Agum Gumelar.

In the end, this historic election, where Indonesians will vote directly for their next president, is likely to be a three-way fight among Ms Megawati and the two generals.

The rallies might well highlight the popularity of each candidate. They could also alter the relative positions of the top three, depending on who gains the upper hand in swaying the ground with fiery speeches amid the razzle-dazzle of campaigning.

It is going to be a long, tumultuous campaign.

CLASH OF THE TITANS

A month-long presidential campaign kicking off in Indonesia tomorrow will test the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
Running mate: Jusuf Kalla
Strengths:
Soft-spoken general with telegenic appeal. No. 1 in several opinion polls.
Good track record in government and military.
Carries reformasi tag, seen as force for change.
Weaknesses:
Lacks major party machinery.
Urban support only.

Wiranto
Running mate: Solahuddin Wahid
Strengths:
Endorsed by two major parties – Golkar and the Nation Awakening Party.
Brings military experience and leadership.
Party machinery covers entire country.
Weaknesses:
Low popularity. Accused of human rights violations in former East Timor.

Megawati Sukarnoputri
Running mate: Hasyim Muzadi
Strengths:
Power of incumbency – state resources at disposal.
Symbolic appeal as daughter of Indonesia’s revered first president.
Can draw on party network and infrastructure, and also support from NU
chapters.
Weaknesses:
Image problem. Lacks charisma and shuns publicity, sometimes seen as aloof.
Poor track record in government.

Amien Rais
Running mate: Siswono Yudhohusodo
Strengths:
Reformist figure. Spearheaded opposition to Suharto’s rule and has played a
‘kingmaker’ role.
Linked to second-largest Islamic organisation, Muhammadiyah.
Weaknesses:
Lacks nationwide popularity. Small war chest.

Hamzah Haz
Running mate: Agum Gumelar
Strengths:
Both have experience in running government.
Weaknesses:
Hamzah prone to controversial comments.

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