We want change’


Indonesia votes on Monday in its first direct presidential election. The Straits Times Indonesia Bureau caught up with voters to get their perspective, and also checks the pulse in the regions.

Disenchanted voters want hope for better future.

The kretek-smoking men huddled around the goggle box.

It is night in the village of Plaosan in Madiun. The crowd of 17 squeezed into a warung or roadside food stall near the rugged countryside and green paddies of East Java.

All eyeballs are glued to the 14-inch Sony TV screen that features presidential contender Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in a talk show. They laugh. They clap. They cheer.

Mr Suratman, a wiry and pock-marked 35-year-old farmer, is a lifelong PDI-P supporter. But he is intent on voting for Mr Bambang and joining his small Democrat Party in the future.

‘We want change,’ he declared. ‘SBY is a new face. He gives us hope for a better future.’

The retired general, popularly known as SBY, is now a hot favourite in Madiun, once a stronghold of President Megawati Sukarnoputri and her Indonesian Democratic Party Struggle (PDI-P).

Along the dirt road of sand and gravel, SBY banners are hoisted on flagpoles and trees. His popularity has seen a dramatic surge here and elsewhere across the vast archipelago.

Madiun is reflective of a broader trend in Indonesian politics. The results of the April general election point to one incontrovertible fact: the older established forces like Golkar and PDI-P have lost ground.

A genuine impulse for change has swept over voters but more significantly, it is cutting across party lines and ideological divides.

It is a fallacy these days to talk about Golkar versus PDI-P or the Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) taking on Muhammadiyah.

Political machinery could still convert recognition into votes at the ballot booth on Monday. But personal popularity may well hold the key to victory in a direct election.

Mr Bambang is riding on this mood for change.

The seismic shift in sentiment on the ground and the public empathy he won for being sacked from the Megawati government have propelled him into the envied position of front runner in just five months.

Earlier this year, he was seen as a dark horse, trailing far behind the likes of Ms Megawati and more established politicians like Dr Amien Rais inopinion polls.

Today, he is leading the pack by a clear margin. He is No 1 in all the surveys, hovering between 35 per cent and 45 per cent.

A poll by the US-based International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) released on Thursday showed 43.5 per cent wanted Mr Bambang as president, followed by 14.2 per cent for Mr Wiranto, 11.7 per cent for Ms Megawati and 10.9 per cent for Dr Amien.

Vice-President Hamzah Haz languished with 2.4 per cent.

What is Mr Bambang’s appeal? Image.

With his imposing frame and clean-cut good looks, he is a poster boy for clean government.

When he was the high-profile security czar in Ms Megawati’s Cabinet, he became a voice of reason and authority, appearing on television almost every other day with headline news on terrorism, Aceh, Papua and Poso.

A medium rarely used in previous elections in Indonesia, TV has added a new dimension to campaigners making inroads into urban areas and remote rural areas, where parabolas sprouting like big mushrooms dot the rooftops of dilapidated attap houses.

A survey by the Asia Foundation last year showed that two in three voters here watch television almost every day. Three in four in that same survey said watching TV was how they found out what was going on in the country.

In a presidential election which is primarily personality driven, this fact carries even greater significance when the candidates appear on the screen. Their strengths – and weaknesses – are for all to see.

Bereft of party machinery with tentacles reaching all corners of Indonesia, Mr Bambang has turned to the goggle box to increase his popularity. And it has paid off handsomely.

Although he used the airtime to outline his plans for Indonesia just like any other candidate, he left a searing image in the minds of people as a soft-spoken telegenic general.

His detractors accuse him of being indecisive. But several intellectuals and the urban elite are won over by an image that is unencumbered by historical baggage and scandals – problems other candidates are grappling with.

The wong cilik or small people like Mr Suratman, so disillusioned with the current government, believe that he can give them a better life.

In both urban and rural areas, it is the force of such perceptions that is driving the Bambang phenomenon.

More significantly, political fault lines are blurring against a backdrop of this rising popularity.

The IFES poll revealed that an increasing number of Golkar, PDI-P, Nation Awakening Party (PKB) and NU members would vote for him.

For members of Golkar and PKB, for example, around 40 per cent are willing to cross party lines. The figure for PDI-P is 22 per cent.

So, will Mr Bambang surprise everyone by pulling off a first round knockout?

Unlikely. With five presidential tickets in the race, there is likely to be a second round but the front runner is poised to get into the September run-off with the largest number of votes.

The others – Ms Megawati, Mr Wiranto, Dr Amien and Mr Hamzah Haz – are all moving targets, fighting among themselves for the second slot.

Despite his sterling TV performances and the backing of an influential Muslim party, Dr Amien’s support base continues to be confined to urban centres. Mr Hamzah’s candidacy is mired in mystery, lacking popularity and political network.

That leaves the President and Mr Wiranto as the strongest contenders to challenge Mr Bambang.

The 57-year-old incumbent could get through for two reasons.

With the votes split among five contenders, there is little chance of an anti-Megawati bloc emerging. This has created a somewhat even playing field that could see her scrape into Round 2.

Secondly, she has a captive electorate. As daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno, she still can draw votes in Java and to a lesser extent in the outer islands.

In the general election, she captured close to 20 million votes. Some believe that her running mate, NU chairman Hasyim Muzadi, could add another 5 million to 7 million to increase the tally.

In the end, her name recognition could be the deciding factor.

Likewise for Mr Wiranto. On paper, he is the strongest candidate.

He has the formal backing of Golkar, PKB and 40-million-strong NU.

But will this translate into actual votes given that each organisation is riven by divisions? Can he count on personal popularity to make up the numbers?

Opinion polls like IFES suggest he is slowly covering ground, overtaking Ms Megawati. But there is still a huge gap between him and his one-time subordinate in the armed forces.

The jury is still out on Mr Wiranto’s electoral pull. Some believe that the bulk of his support will come from rural Indonesia – the silent majority.

Of all the candidates, Mr Wiranto probably has the most professionally-run campaign team and the biggest war chest.

This could prove crucial in a patronage system where money oils the wheels of politics. Inducements for village elders and religious clerics could tip the balance in his favour.

All said, seasoned observers do warn against adhering too closely to the form books – be it for Mr Wiranto, Mr Bambang or the others.

Recently, disgruntled rural voters in India swept the Congress party back into power – when sophisticated opinion polls had predicted otherwise.

But if there are any conclusions to be gleaned from the current opinion polls in Indonesia – which has a less mature democracy than India – it is the lesson of Madiun.

Two days away from the presidential polls, this little town has taught us that the country’s traditional politics is indeed giving way to a more grassroots-driven appeal.

Just ask Mr Suratman.

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