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Indonesia's Presidential Campaign Begins Quietly

  • Katie Hamann

Indonesia's presidential election race has begun. Although many voters and political analysts in the country expect the popular President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to win re-election, there are concerns about the running mates of his main rivals.

There was little ceremony as Indonesia's presidential campaign officially began this week.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was in South Korea for an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting. So his chief campaign rivals, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri and current Vice-President Jusef Kalla, have been content to meet with party members and plot their next moves.

Controversial running mates

Both challengers have selected controversial running mates. Ms. Megawati has taken former General Prabowo Subianto as her teammate, while Kalla's running mate is former General Wiranto, who goes by one name.

Many human rights activists regard both men as human rights abusers for their actions when East Timor voted to become independent of Indonesia, and in other cases. Prabowo is barred from entering the United States because of his reputation for violating human rights.

Indria Fernida is the deputy coordinator of Indonesia's leading human rights advocacy group, Kontras.

"Wiranto, he is [was] chief of the national police when the referendum in East Timor [took place] so he is responsible for all the riots in East Timor," said Fernida. "Prabowo was responsible for the disappearance [of] activists in 1998 and 1999 before [former President] Suharto's falling."

She says the families of those who disappeared or were killed on the orders of Wiranto and Prabowo are deeply angered by their candidacies.

"We just visit one of the victims a few days ago; her son was disappeared in 1998," said Fernida. "And she was very angry when Prabowo and Wiranto became a candidate because she went to some of the institutions of the government of the last 10 years, most of them promised to solve the case."

"Her daughter said when she saw the television she want[ed] to broke the television because she's very upset that this person [has] become one of the leaders in our country," she added.

But Fernida says many Indonesians have short memories and are more concerned about their day-to-day economic circumstances than human rights.

And Prabowo has excited many with his talk on economics. "I have some real ideas on how to turn this country around from being a second-rate, third-rate country that's always begging for foreign aid, amidst wealth," he said.

"You know we are a very wealthy country but we don't seem to be able to get our act together. Our people are sentenced to be poor - our economic model, our economic system actually in essence perpetuates an oligarchy," he added.

Prabowo has made no secret of his own presidential ambitions. But his party Gerindra received less than five percent of the votes in April's parliamentary elections, below the 20 percent required for the party to field its own presidential candidate.

Jeffrey Winters, an Indonesian political expert from Northwestern University in the United States, thinks Ms. Megawati may have offered Prabowo key cabinet portfolios to get him on her ticket. But Winters says, he is unlikely to make a difference in the success of her campaign.

"There was no other way for her to make a ticket other than to cut such a deal. If she had not cut this deal it would also have been the end of Megawati as a political figure in Indonesia," he said. "So this is her last chance to pull off her political future and everything for Megawati is riding on this election. And it doesn't look very promising."

Safe choice for President

President Yudhoyono surprised many with his choice of Boediono, who goes by one name, as his running mate.

Boediono, who up until his candidacy served as the governor of Indonesia's central bank, impresses some voters with his pragmatic approach to economics.

Sunny Tanuwidjaja is a political analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. He says Boediono is a safe choice for President Yudhoyono.

"For Yudhoyono he has an overwhelming popularity, right," said Tanuwidjaja. "He is trying to select a vice-presidential candidate that will not endanger his dominant position, that's his primary goals. And his second goal of course is to be able to maintain harmony among his coalition and by picking a neutral candidate I think he is able to sustain harmony."

Candidates must win more than 50 percent of the popular vote to avoid a runoff vote, which would likely be held in September.

Northwestern's Winters says that President Yudohoyono's popularity means that he is almost certain to win the July 8 election, and may not have to worry about having to woo voters in runoff.