Mega’s poll chances take a hit …



President’s swift response to bombing earns her points, but may not be enough to convince voters who are angry over security lapses.

It was billed as the wedding of the year.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri and her husband Taufik Kiemas were in the royal palace in Brunei for the marriage ceremony of its Crown Prince when news broke that a powerful car bomb had gone off outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.

But the Indonesian leader, seated together with other dignitaries in the front row of the Indera Buana Throne Room, had no inkling of the terrorist attack at home until the 45-minute ceremony was over.

Her military adjutant slipped a note to her, another aide whispered into her ear and the phones started ringing as she left the throne room with Mr Taufik.

Looking worried and grim, both had a quick exchange of words before rushing off to the airport. They had decided to cut short their trip.

Reaching Jakarta some five hours after the attack, the President rushed to the site of the blast and visited the two hospitals where victims were being treated. How her response this time differed from that after the 2002 Bali bombings.

Then, it took her days to visit the site of the bloody massacre on the tourist resort island – and even that at the forceful prodding of Mr Taufik.

Now locked in a bitter struggle for the presidency with former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Ms Megawati could not afford another public relations disaster that could cost her valuable votes in the Sept 20 runoff.

Her decision to return home appears to have paid off – on paper at least. She has won praise from the local media. This is significant for the 57-year-old leader whose image of being aloof and elusive had left her trailing in the first round of the presidential poll in July.

The English-language Jakarta Post noted in its editorial yesterday: ‘For once, the country’s top leadership reacted promptly to the disaster to show their concern.’

But there was stinging criticism elsewhere. Television and radio phone-ins were jammed with people angry that the security authorities had done little so far to staunch the terrorist tide.

The latest attack is the third major strike on Indonesian soil in the past two years. Extremists struck in Bali in October 2002, killing 202 people. And last year, they hit the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, killing 12 people.

The timing of the latest attack – just 11 days before the presidential runoff – will undoubtedly have an impact on voter behaviour.

Clearly, Indonesians are concerned about unemployment and rising costs, as well as corruption, but Thursday’s strike in the heart of the capital’s business district only reinforces the sentiment that a military strongman is needed to restore law and order.

The Megawati administration has, for a long while, been cautious in dealing with Islamic militants for fear of offending Muslim sentiments. As a result, it has been sending mixed signals over its resolve to fight terrorism.

After passing tough anti-terror laws after the Bali attacks, it has backtracked periodically as a result of weak laws and judicial intervention.

A close aide to Mr Taufik conceded: ‘We did well in the PR exercise on Thursday but can we convince all the voters? I don’t think so. We might have lost at least 5 per cent of the electorate as a result of the bombing.’

Mr Bambang too visited victims in hospital on Thursday, but it is not clear if he will be drawn into a public mudslinging match with the President over the latest attack.

A seasoned Jakarta-based diplomat noted: ‘He will let the people decide for themselves. He has nothing to lose anyway by being restrained. He might get protest votes from the bombing.’

For voters who remain undecided – whom polls indicate comprise 18 per cent of the 140-million-strong electorate – Thursday’s strike could well be the swing factor at the ballot box.

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