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Indonesian Parliamentary Elections Suggest Dissatisfaction with Megawati - 2004-04-28

The final tallies in Indonesia's recent parliamentary elections showed a restless electorate that it is not altogether happy with the performance of President Megawati Sukarnoputri. The results are expected to have profound implications for Indonesia's upcoming presidential election.

The shape of Indonesia's first-ever direct presidential election is becoming clear as, in the aftermath of parliamentary polls, the parties choose whom they will field for the country's top job.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri is running for a second term on the ticket of her ruling party, known as the PDIP. Her two top challengers for the job are both former generals. In a surprise move, Golkar, the ruling party under former president Suharto, last week chose former army chief Wiranto as its presidential candidate. The Democrat Party, a relative newcomer making its mark on Indonesian politics, is headed by ex-general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was President Megawati's coordinating minister for security.

Golkar won 21 percent of the parliamentary vote, compared to 22 percent in the 1999 elections, while the PDIP saw its vote share plunge from 34 per cent in 1999 to just 19 per cent this time. The Democrat Party and the Islamic-oriented Prosperous Justice Party, made respectable third and fourth-place showings.

Indonesian public opinion polls show Mr. Yudhoyono as the clear presidential front-runner, with Ms. Megawati coming in second and Mr. Wiranto a distant third.

Donald Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University, said that voters are disappointed with what they view as Ms. Megawati's failure to root out corruption, improve the economy and crack down on crime and lawlessness.

"These issues - economic issues, security issues - I think have come to the fore and she has been found wanting in that regard," he said. "And that, conversely, has meant greater popularity for decisive figures. A military background, all things being equal, clearly does help because obviously a former general is presumed to be somebody who is not going to shy away from challenge. "

Analysts hasten to caution against inferring that there is any great desire for a return to the days of former President Suharto, who ruled Indonesia with strong military backing. As Blair King, East and Southeast Asia director for the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, says, Indonesian voters want a strong hand at the helm, but not necessarily an authoritarian one.

"Certainly there is a certain level of nostalgia for the economic stability and growth of the New Order era," he said. "But both polling and focus group research and, I think, the results of the elections, show that's not accompanied by a nostalgia for authoritarianism per se."

Mr. Wiranto is a controversial figure - at least among international human rights groups. A United Nations tribunal last year indicted him on war crimes charges relating to the spasm of violence that swept over East Timor when it voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999. He is also closely tied to the autocratic rule of President Suharto, but as Mr. Emmerson points out, Mr. Wiranto is also a nationalist hero to many Indonesian voters.

"In an Indonesian context, there is a very different interpretation of East Timor, and Wiranto is seen rather as a nationalist figure who did what he could to prevent East Timor being torn, as it were, from the bosom of Mother Indonesia by the United Nations in some sort of conspiracy with the Australians," he added. "I mean this may not correspond with the way I might look at recent history in Indonesia, but I think that image is widespread."

In contrast, say analysts, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is seen as a clean politician who has Mr. Wiranto's nationalist credentials but is not bogged down by the allegations of human rights abuses that have dogged Mr. Wiranto.

Mr. Wiranto and Ms. Megawati are courting the support of smaller religious-based Islamic parties to try to blunt Mr. Yudhoyono's lead, but as Mr. King said, the Islamic parties rarely agree on things.

"So it's been very difficult, both in 1999 and, I think, will be difficult again this time for these parties to come together and unify around either any kind of individual candidate or even an agenda because, even though I'm loosely grouping these as Muslim parties, there are significant differences among them in how they see the role of Islam in public life and political life, and also particular policy prescriptions that they have," he added.

If there is no clear winner July 5, a second run-off election will be held between the top two vote-getters on September 20. The only projection analysts are willing to make now is that there will be a run-off, but no one will predict who will be in it.