Bambang ahead in early counts

Millions of Indonesians voted yesterday in a historic direct presidential election that could pave the way for a former general to take over the reins of power.

Front-runner Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who for weeks commanded a significant lead over four other candidates in opinion surveys, was making strong gains as the first votes were tallied.

There are 154 million eligible voters and, by last night, only 3.26 million votes had been counted.

The General Election Commission (KPU) showed Mr Bambang to be in front with 33 per cent of the vote, with incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri in second place with 28 per cent and retired general Wiranto third with 22 per cent.

The two remaining candidates – national assembly chairman Amien Rais and Vice-President Hamzah Haz – were trailing far behind.

The early results, however, came mostly from urban areas where Mr Bambang draws most of his support and Java, with observers warning that voting patterns might change as more ballots are tallied.

An exit poll by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute found the ranking and percentages of the candidates to be close to the KPU results.

Officials from Golkar and other parties, carrying out their own count, said Mr Bambang, 55, had made inroads not just in Java but also in the outer islands such as Sulawesi and Sumatra.

More significantly, he had encroached on the traditional strongholds of the President and her Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P).

In Central Java, he was running neck and neck with Ms Megawati, 57. And in Bali, he emerged victorious in several districts that once swore allegiance to her.

Ms Megawati, fighting an uphill battle to stay in power after her party’s massive defeat in the April parliamentary elections, appeared to have won over ethnic Chinese voters in Jakarta and Surabaya.

But it was not enough to close the gap with Mr Bambang, who quit her administration in March to run for the top job.

Overall, it seemed clear last night that none of the five candidates was likely to secure at least a 50 per cent majority and win the election.

Unless that happens, the top two vote-getters will move on to round two of voting in September.

An aide to Ms Megawati’s influential husband, Mr Taufik Kiemas, told The Straits Times: ‘We are losing ground to Bambang, who has emerged as No 1 or 2 in many places. But we believe that Ibu Mega can still make it because the other candidates are weak. Our main rival would be Wiranto to enter the second round.’

But given the size of Indonesia and the logistical challenges – one of the biggest polling exercises in the world – it might be a day or two before enough votes are counted to show a clear trend.

Candidates have been watching the counts closely, with the mood in the various camps changing by the hour as reports of how the voting was going streamed in.

Mr Bambang, buoyed by his widespread appeal in recent weeks, was most confident, declaring that he would get into the second round.

His rising popularity is a result of the changing political mood. A genuine impulse for change has swept over voters and, more significantly, it appears to have cut across party lines and ideological divides.

The early count yesterday seemed to have borne this out.

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