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Indonesian Presidential Candidates Scramble for Votes Ahead of Direct Election Next Month - 2004-06-01


On July 5, for the first time in their history, Indonesians will directly elect their next president. The five candidates are campaigning on similar platforms.

An Indonesian marching band formally announces the start of the presidential campaign in front of an audience that includes the five presidential candidates.

All the candidates and their running mates come from Indonesia's political elite and support broadly similar secular-nationalist policies, but voter preferences are already emerging in opinion polls.

Hadi Soeastro is the head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. He says the candidates share political instincts, but differences in their styles could lead to very different governments. "The instincts are the same, but it has to be translated into concrete policies and it is in the translations of those policies that I think you will see a totally different outcome," he says.

The clear front-runner is Indonesia's former security minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general who has escaped accusations of authoritarianism attached to other politicians who were once members of the military.

During his time as security minister, he won praise for handling the separatist conflict in Aceh province, where he supported a negotiated peace settlement before the army was called in a year ago.

But Mr. Yudhoyono lacks the high profile and well-oiled party machine of his challengers, which may work against him in the more remote parts of Indonesia's vast archipelago.

His closest challenger, the former head of the army, General Wiranto, has the backing of the largest and best-organized political party, Golkar. The general has a reputation as a straight-talking son of the people whose fondness for karaoke led him to release a compact disk of his songs.

But in many younger voters' eyes, General Wiranto's past associations with the corrupt dictator President Suharto, who ruled until 1998, taint the general and his party.

A U.N.-backed court in East Timor has issued an arrest warrant for General Wiranto, who was head of the army in 1999 when East Timor voted for independence. The court accuses him of responsibility for the violent actions of Indonesians soldiers during the time of the vote.

The general denies wrongdoing, and analysts say the accusations are not likely to cause much damage.

The third presidential challenger, incumbent president Megawati Sukarnoputri, is fighting for her political life. She says her party is committed to helping the little people. But she faces an uphill battle to get them to vote for her.

The daughter of Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno, Mrs. Megawati's party won the 1998 elections on a surge of reformist enthusiasm. She is credited with bringing some social and economic calm to Indonesia after years of turmoil, but critics accuse her of not doing enough about corruption and economic reform.

The other candidates, current vice-president Hamzah Haz, and Islamic scholar Amien Rais, have less support, and polls show they are not likely to win.

Opinion polls are showing that no candidate will win 50 percent of the July 5 vote, which means the top two will have a run-off in September.

Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim nation, and all contenders have taken into account the power of the Islamic vote. Many of the vice presidential running mates are drawn from the moderate Islamic establishment, but no candidates are advocating moving Indonesia towards becoming an Islamic state.

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