Bambang’s rivals fight back

ASIAN AGENDA: INDONESIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

With 10 days left to go in the month-long campaign for the Indonesian presidential election on July 5, The Straits Times team covering the hustings assesses the state of play.

The race is not over.

Indonesia’s presidential contenders are desperately trying to close the gap on front runner Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with just 10 days of the month-long election campaign left.

His main rivals – President Megawati Sukarnoputri and another retired general Wiranto – are criss-crossing the archipelago, holding a razzmatazz of rallies and making bizarre election promises.

The carnival-like atmosphere over the last three weeks belies the unease of a brewing power struggle among the leading candidates.

Ms Megawati shows no signs of giving up despite the devastating defeat of her Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P) in the April general election.

She has come out of her palace cocoon to win votes.

The 57-year-old leader has been touring markets and popping up at numerous public events to win over the wong cilik or little people.

And she has been playing to the media gallery.

She held her first press conference with foreign journalists and gave a number of television interviews to local stations.

She and her team have also been making promises – the most glaring one being to put 83-year-old Suharto on trial if she is re-elected.

One of the key aims of her team has been to demolish the image of rivals tainted by links to the New Order regime.

As a result, the two generals have become victims of a dirty tricks campaign.

The palace believes this strategy will reap dividends.

The populist card is also played.

Election sweeteners are being doled out.

Her administration has dished out a plan to give a 13th month bonus to all civil servants, including the military, which could cost the government close to S$1.5 billion.

It is also pressing ahead with fuel subsidies even if petrol prices in Indonesia are capped way below international prices.

Drawing from last year’s experience when unpopular economic policies resulted in a strong backlash – reflected by the PDI-P’s disastrous performance in the April parliamentary election – her backers see populist measures as a way to win a few million extra votes.

Her advisers argue that her fortunes are rising.

Indeed, they say she could even win the election in just one round, avoiding a run off in September.

Ms Megawati, who, like Mr Bambang, is strongest in Java, might be able to draw on some 20 per cent of the expected 140 million voters – most of whom will be hard-core Sukarnoists.

She could also tap a few more million from the Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), given the links of her running mate Hasyim Muzadi to the country’s largest Muslim organisation.

However, this could be in doubt, following a fatwa by influential NU clerics not to vote for a woman president.

But are her efforts too little, too late? Maybe, judging from the poor turnout at her rallies. Although 40,000 turned up for her rally yesterday, observers say this is still below expectations.

In one incident in Lombok, it is telling that she was even jeered by the crowd.

Party insiders are also concerned that she is not using much of the PDI-P machinery to mobilise support.

A close friend of her influential husband Taufik Kiemas noted: ‘The PDI-P machinery is sleeping. She prefers to use NGOs and other grassroots organisations and not be affiliated too closely with the party.’

Mr Wiranto faces a similar dilemma.

The former military commander is turning increasingly to his personal network – responsible for his surprise victory in the Golkar convention in March – to do his bidding.

Intra-party factionalism has meant, for example, that Golkar is less than united in its support for Mr Wiranto.

Party branches, lukewarm in their backing for him, have been slow in mobilising supporters to turn up at rallies.

There is still bad blood in the party, a result of the fierce contest between Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung and Mr Wiranto at the March convention.

PKB and the 40-million-strong NU are also divided in their support for him despite having Mr Solahuddin Wahid, the younger brother of NU elder Abdurrahman Wahid, as his No 2.

Complicating matters, Golkar and PKB are squabbling over logistics and planning during campaigning.

This has done little to guarantee full support for the retired four-star.

His aide explained: ‘Party machinery has slowed things down for us. It has been a liability.’

Endowed with a huge war chest, Mr Wiranto’s game plan is essentially to sway voters with plenty of goodies.

Like Ms Megawati, his target is the wong cilik.

Thousands of Warung Wiranto, a popular eatery, dot Jakarta’s streets, providing cheap food and drinks for the working class.

At a broader level, however, the Wiranto camp is under no illusion that it will win the election by just handing out freebies.

Its main priority continues to be image building.

Mr Wiranto is seeking to discredit his main opponents through a smear campaign, having also been the victim of one himself.

A steady drip-feed of embarrassing revelations over the last three weeks has been potentially damaging.

For example, a VCD being distributed freely in major cities contains messages urging people not to vote for Mr Wiranto.

It starts off with a concert of a popular televised talent quest and then switches to images of the Trisakti and Semanggi incidents in 1998 and 1999 when peaceful demonstrators were gunned down by the military.

The historical baggage hangs like an albatross over Mr Wiranto’s neck.

That has only spurred him on to make more appearances in TV debates and public discussion forums.

Beneath the veneer of a peaceful election campaign, Mr Wiranto’s charges lead a military-style intelligence operation.

Some believe the fatwa against Ms Megawati was reportedly a tit-for-tat response by his supporters for the incessant palace attacks on Mr Wiranto’s military track record and links to the Suharto regime.

Mr Bambang’s aides also suspect Mr Wiranto of being behind moves to sway the Muslim vote away from the popular general.

Mr Bambang has been the main target of the hate campaign.

His credibility with hard line Islamic groups might have taken a beating.

But the mudslinging has also worked to his advantage, portraying him as a victim of government persecution.

His popularity is reflected in the turnouts at his rallies that have been far greater than any other candidate.

From Java to the outer islands, thousands have been flocking to hear the soft-spoken and telegenic general.

Long before the campaign, his popularity was already on a high.

The survey by the United States-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems showed that support for the 55-year-old retired general has soared to 41 per cent.

Ms Megawati, by contrast, was far behind with 11 per cent, and Mr Wiranto, with just 10 per cent.

Today, those figures have not changed.

If anything, there has been a linear progression in Mr Bambang’s popularity since March when he quit the government after falling out with the palace.

Latest surveys in Indonesia suggest it is close to 50 per cent now.

It has debunked the myth that he is popular only in urban areas and in Java.

Golkar deputy chairman Marzuki Darusman told The Straits Times: ‘Bambang has emerged as a phenomenon. He has caught the imagination of a public that is crying for change. Bambang represents a symbol of hope.

‘He has also become a media icon. He is being bandied around by most of the newspapers and TV stations. He does not need any party machinery. The medium is the message.’

Mr Bambang’s position is getting stronger as key figures from other camps switch over to his side.

Ultimately, however, how the three-way fight reaches a conclusion will depend on the prevailing mood of the country.

Ms Megawati and Mr Wiranto are each backed by a mammoth political network.

But they lag behind in personal popularity that could prove crucial on July 05 when an expected 140 million Indonesians will cast their votes.

Clearly, the tectonic plate has shifted. The results of the general election point to one incontrovertible fact: the older established forces like Golkar and PDI-P have lost ground.

This presidential election campaign – just like the general election – has shown that Indonesians are suffering from political fatigue.

They are tired and sceptical of the rhetoric and empty pledges of politicians.

They want a new face.

Personality-based politics is in vogue in Indonesia.

Five years ago, Ms Megawati rode on the martyr syndrome.

Today, Mr Bambang is riding on a mood for change in the electorate.

But his rivals are not giving up. After all, 10 days is a long time in politics.

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