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Indonesian Legislative Elections Spotlight Presidential Hopefuls

  • Katie Hamann

Indonesians are preparing to go to the polls on Thursday to elect their national legislative members. But the real focus is on the presidential elections, scheduled to be held in July. The results from Thursday's polls will determine who can field a presidential candidate.

Just two days out from national legislative elections the streets in the Indonesian capital are curiously calm.

A three-day cooling off period marks the countdown to parliamentary elections. Campaigning officially ended at midnight on Sunday after three weeks of rallies, musical performances and stirring speeches.

The day before, in a stadium named after her father, Indonesia's first president Sukarno, tens of thousands gathered to pay homage to Megawati Sukarnoputri and her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.

Mega as she is known, served as president between 2001 and 2004, and is hoping for a chance to run again in the presidential run-off in July. Polls have her party, PDIP, running second behind incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party.

Almost 12,000 candidates from 38 parties are contesting 560 seats in the Parliament. Others are vying for tens of thousands of positions at the local government level.

The legislative elections are a vital precursor to the presidential race. Parties must win 20 percent of seats in the House in order to field a presidential candidate. Which is perhaps why hopefuls have played such a prominent role in this campaign.

Wimar Witoelar is a political commentator and former presidential spokesperson to Abdurrahman Wahid. He says no one party will be able to achieve this majority.

"I would say the parliamentary elections will not result in the victory of any one party to be eligible for a sole nominator for president. I would say that the president still would have to be nominated by a combination of two or three parties and I would look at interesting coalitions," he said.

Many parties have recruited television actors, singers and other celebrities to run under their banner, perhaps because of a change in policy this year which gives victory to those who win the most votes. Previously it was the party who nominated legislative candidates.

Other great leaders have also lent a hand; Barack Obama, David Beckham, James Bond and Superman have appeared by way of digital enhancement, standing next to candidates on posters.

But parties have pitched policy as well as personality. With the effects of the global economic crisis beginning to penetrate, economic management has been high on the agenda.

Anies Baswedan is the rector of Paramadina University and a prominent Indonesian intellectual. He says this time voters are looking for policy commitments from candidates.

"This general election is done after all local elections were completed, by December 2008. And in local elections the issues that is confronted by the public is very practical, very policy orientated and that is why in the general elections in April is very unique compared to previous elections This time politicians have been confronted by voters who have been exposed to more practical issues," he said.

One of the more controversial presidential hopeful's is former General Prabowo Subianto, who was also married to a Suharto daughter. He was kicked out of the military and fled into exile after allegations of human rights abuses in East Timor when he was head of the notorious Kopassus Special Forces. Under his command nine democracy activists were kidnapped and tortured during the upheavals in 1998, another 13 remain unaccounted for.

To this day Prabowo is banned from entering the United States because of his reputation as a human rights violator.

He claims he did not commit atrocities in East Timor and likens the kidnapping of activists to America's policy of extraordinary rendition.

"For instance perhaps what is called preventive detention would be in the end spinned as kidnapping and abduction you know?," he said.

He points to the fact that two of his former torture victims are now running as candidates in his party.

Despite his lofty associations and a billionaire brother funding his campaign, Prabowo is painting himself and his party Gerindra as an alternative for common people.

"I have some real ideas on how to turn this country around from being a second rate, third rate country that is always begging for foreign aid, amidst wealth. You know we are a very wealthy country but we do not seem to be able to get our act together," he said.

Prabowo is an outside chance for a presidential run say analysts but he may be looking establish his credentials for future elections.

President SBY is considered a sure bet for a place in the race. His Democratic Party has been gaining ground in polls and is expected to far surpass the tally of the traditional Golkar party, which has long held sway over the political landscape.

Wimar Witolear is predicting victory for SBY.

"As for the presidential elections, unless President Yudhoyono really blows it, unless some scandal is unearthed and I am sure there are none in his closet, scandals are not his weakness, boredom is his weakness. I think he will win by default because there are no exciting candidates in the running now," he said.

There is speculation, fueled by declarations from SBY himself that current Vice President and Golkar chairman Jusuf Kalla, will not be picked as his running mate for a second time. Just who he will choose to partner with is a question that will be answered with Thursday's results.

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