Bambang heading for big victory

Early count shows the former general leading with 59.2 per cent of the vote against 40.7 for incumbent Megawati.

Former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono looks set to become Indonesia’s first popularly elected president.

He was making strong gains in early vote counts last night, after millions of Indonesians cast their ballots in the final round of the country’s first direct election for president.

Official tallies by the General Election Commission showed him leading with 59.2 per cent of the vote against 40.7 for the incumbent, Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri.

The results that continued to trickle in through the night were based on about a quarter of the estimated turnout. In all, 153 million Indonesians were eligible to vote.

Quick counts carried out by at least two independent polling agencies also showed Mr Bambang with a commanding lead. The United States-based National Democratic Institute had him winning 61 per cent of the vote against 39 per cent for Ms Megawati. The Jakarta-based think-tank LP3ES’ forecast: 61.2 per cent for Mr Bambang, 38 per cent for his rival.

Political observer Arbi Sanit of the University of Indonesia told The Straits Times: ‘These initial figures are likely to reflect the final outcome, as they did in the first round of the presidential election. If the trend shows a steady vote for SBY every hour or so, then it could be dangerous for Megawati.’

If these trends hold up over the next few days, it would reflect a big win for Mr Bambang, by a wider margin than some had anticipated. This could bolster his hand in dealing with a legislature that will be dominated by Ms Megawati’s party and its allies.

In the first round in July, Mr Bambang emerged the winner in a wider field of candidates, but failed to gain over half the vote, which triggered the run-off with his closest rival, Ms Megawati.

A closer examination of the returns yesterday showed him in a tight race in West and Central Java, both considered strongholds of Ms Megawati’s coalition partner, Golkar, and her Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P).

In other provinces, he was leading by a wide margin. Most significant was East Java, home base of the 40-million-strong Muslim group, Nadhlatul Ulama, the chairman of which is Ms Megawati’s running mate Hasyim Muzadi.

As the vote count continued yesterday, Mr Bambang kept a close watch on the televised updates at his home, in the company of his wife Kristiani and close aides.

He told reporters earlier that he expects to capture between 55 per cent and 60 per cent of the vote. ‘If there are no irregularities in the vote-counting then, God willing, I will win this election,’ he said.

In the Megawati residence, the President stayed up late, monitoring the vote tally with husband Taufik Kiemas.

A Taufik loyalist said: ‘Ibu Mega will put up a brave front in public but deep down she is very down. She knows it is time to go.’

Apart from despondency, the prospect of defeat has also spurred the first moves to remove her from the party leadership, with some PDI-P cadres holding meetings last night to plot her ouster.

Both candidates had offered similar platforms, promising to strengthen the economy, tackle graft and fight terrorism, but for many voters it was time for a change.

Yesterday’s election marked the end of a turbulent transition to democracy, six years after the fall of President Suharto.

Security was tight amid warnings of terrorist attacks, but Indonesia has shown over a seven-month period that it is able to conduct three elections – a legislative poll in April and two rounds of a presidential election – without violence or civil unrest.

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