How Mega surged back into contention
President used her incumbency to pull off a turnaround, putting Wiranto out of the race and cutting Bambang’s lead on her.
It was tipped to be the battle of the generals.
But in the end, it was not. Incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri defied the odds with a last-minute surge that catapulted her into the second round of the presidential race with a fighting chance now for re-election.
Her late offensive left former military commander Wiranto by the wayside.
And more significantly, it cut the spectacular lead the other four-star general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, had on her and whom pollsters had predicted would get the 50 per cent majority mark to avoid a Sept 20 run-off.
The official results of the July 5 election showed him weaker with 36.6 per cent and Ms Megawati with 26.6 per cent, much more than the 14 per cent she had been expected to pull.
What explains the President’s dramatic change in fortunes?
Just three months earlier, her Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) slumped to an embarrassing defeat in the general election. Political observers believed she would never recover.
But the defeat only emboldened her as she stepped out of her palace cocoon to court the wong cilik – or small people – aggressively.
The normally reticent and aloof 57-year-old leader mounted a charm offensive – kissing babies, touring markets and shaking hands with farmers, fishermen and labourers.
The powers of incumbency played a big role. With the largest war chest and state resources at her disposal, she could work the ground more effectively than her rivals.
Some believe that she even used the national police to mobilise grassroots support.
Indeed, there was damning evidence of this in VCDs circulating around the country. The police chief of Banyumas in Central Java is shown calling on several people at a meeting before the July 5 polls to support Ms Megawati.
Others speculate that there might also have been electoral manipulation. There is little evidence, however, to suggest this happened.
Whatever the case, her opponent will have to contend with this advantage of incumbency in the second round.
Palace loyalists argue that she got in on her own merits.
Despite doing badly in the parliamentary polls, she was still able to capture close to 20 million votes.
She benefited from name recognition as the daughter of Indonesia’s founding father, Sukarno.
She went into the race with another advantage: the opposition was divided. With five candidates in the first round, there was little chance of an anti-Megawati bloc emerging.
It created a somewhat even playing field that increased her chances of getting into the run-off.
In the next round, the short campaign season will favour Ms Megawati, who could again use her position to get free media exposure and introduce populist policies to win favour.
With gold in the coffers, the palace could also attract major parties with the best deals. It appears to have already done so by wooing Golkar and the Muslim-based United Development Party (PPP) in a grand alliance.
It will certainly close the gap on Mr Bambang, whose saving grace thus far has been his personal popularity. Telegenic and soft-spoken, the 55-year-old Javanese general’s image has propelled his nationwide appeal. His small Democratic Party managed only 7 per cent in the GE. But this increased fivefold in the July presidential election.
The figures fall short of expectations. Some blame the polls for playing up his popularity. But it could also be that the smear campaign against him by those close to the palace might have had the desired effect in the last weeks of campaigning in June.
A deluge of reports on his involvement in the attack on the PDI-P headquarters in 1996 and doubts about his Islamic credentials may have cost him valuable votes.
Mr Bambang enters the contest as front runner again. But the key for him will be whether his popularity can withstand the challenge of his rival’s political machinery with its tentacles across the sprawling archipelago.
The force of incumbency will bring itself to bear again on the second round. Having put one powerful general out of the race, Ms Megawati appears to be in no mood to give up her throne to another.