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Presidential Bid by Indonesian General Stirs Controversy


In July, Indonesia is scheduled to hold its first-ever direct election of a president. The incumbent, Megawati Sukarnoputri, is expected to seek another term. But she faces a challenge from a controversial figure.

The former chief of the Indonesian armed forces is laying the groundwork for a presidential bid despite his indictment by a U.N. tribunal for war crimes in the former Indonesian colony of East Timor.

General Wiranto, who was forced into civilian life in 2000, is portraying the government of Megawati Sukarnoputri as failed and offering himself as a contender in the first direct presidential election.

The one-time military chief and six other senior officers were charged by a U.N. court with crimes against humanity in connection with the violence that accompanied a 1999 referendum on East Timor's independence. But Indonesian courts have declined to charge him, and the government has refused to turn him and his colleagues over to the United Nations for trial.

Despite his longtime association with the former dictator Suharto, General Wiranto has a following in Indonesia.

With his movie-star good looks, General Wiranto looks ready-made for Indonesia's first direct presidential poll. He has even put out CDs of himself singing. Polls give him a solid chance of defeating parliamentary speaker Akbar Tanjug, now appealing a corruption conviction, for the nomination of the Golkar Party. The presidential battle is expected to be between Ms. Megawati and whoever wins the Golkar nomination.

Dana Dillon, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, likens General Wiranto's popularity in Indonesia to the nostalgic appeal of old Communist leaders in some former Communist states.

"They voted for the people who were the opposition leaders during the Suharto era," he said. "And then, now that they're in this political transition, lots of things are unknown and indecisive, and the leaders themselves have demonstrated themselves to be weak, they are looking again for not a strong leader as strong as Suharto, but somebody who who will bring some stability to the political and economic landscape."

Eric Bjornlund of Democracy International, a group promoting democratic institutions worldwide, agrees that Indonesians disappointed in President Megawati see General Wiranto as a candidate who will bring back what some Indonesians see as "the good old days."

"I think the reason General Wiranto has support and has appeal is that there is something of a nostalgia for what was perceived as the strong leadership under Suharto, under the New Order, and a yearning for greater political stability and a return to economic growth," he said. "And there's a perception that a former military man like Wiranto might be able to provide that strong leadership."

Mr. Bjornlund adds that General Wiranto can play up his nationalist credentials as one who can hold the country together after the breakaway of East Timor and the simmering insurgency in Aceh.

"Many people in Indonesia are disappointed by Megawati's leadership, and see General Wiranto as somebody who can provide that kind of strong leadership and strong hand at the center and, indeed, can play the nationalist card, can protect the interest of keeping Indonesia together and can deal with all the forces that would threaten the national integrity or unity of Indonesia," he said.

But a Wiranto candidacy is controversial outside the country. Published reports say General Wiranto and five of his former army colleagues have been placed on a U.S. visa "watch list" and barred from entering the United States.

General Wiranto has shrugged it off, saying he has no plans to go to the United States anyway. But Dana Dillon of the Heritage Foundation says a Wiranto candidacy, much less an actual electoral victory, will cause severe rifts in Indonesia's relationships with the United States, Europe, and Japan.

"If the world still believes that Wiranto is an unconvicted war criminal, then he will have a hard time, especially in Western countries," he said. "I mean, he won't have a problem in countries like Burma or China. But in countries like the United States or many European countries or Japan, he will have a problem. And I think that is, hopefully, going to count against him, that they're not going to elect a guy that is a potential war criminal or is at least on trial for war crimes. He shouldn't even be allowed to run, in my estimation, until he's been tried."

General Wiranto dismisses the allegations of war crimes. He said last week that a commander cannot always be held accountable for all the actions of his subordinates.

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