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Indonesian President Fighting for Her Political Life - 2004-09-20


Indonesia's president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, is facing a daunting challenge to hold on to her job in Monday's elections. Mrs. Megawati was once regarded as the champion of reform, but voters have become dissatisfied with what they believe is stagnation at the top in Indonesia.

Throughout most of the campaign, Megawati Sukarnoputri trailed her challenger and former security minister, Susilo Bambang Yudohyono, in polls.

Both share a broadly similar secular-nationalist ideological platform, and have promised to tackle corruption and improve the economy. Analysts say that if Mr. Yudhoyono gets elected, Indonesia is likely to have a change of style rather than a change of direction.

Mrs. Megawati's political career has often been shaped by others, including her opponents. Even in this election she benefited from the fact that Mr. Yudhoyono was once a general, a fact that many Indonesians find uncomfortable after decades of military-backed dictatorship.

Guntoro, a 33-year-old marketer, said Monday he would not vote for Mr. Yudhoyono.

"We have experience of the military. I think for this moment we need civil for the government," he said.

Mrs. Megawati is the daughter of Indonesia's charismatic founding president, Sukarno, and after his overthrow in 1965, she endured years in the political wilderness.

She rose to prominence in the 1990s, when she took over the Indonesian Democratic Party, one of the so-called opposition parties that President Suharto's increasingly corrupt regime used to give legitimacy to his decades-long rule. But the party and Mrs. Megawati grew to become a rallying point for discontent with the status quo.

Then, in 1998, Mr. Suharto finally fell, pushed out by the so-called 'reformasi' movement. It was fueled by popular discontent with the dictator's corruption, mismanagement of the country, and brutalities of the military. Mrs. Megawati reaped the benefits.

Her party, Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, swept the first elections in 1999, but she failed to secure the nomination for the presidency. Instead, Mrs. Megawati became vice-president to the erratic Abdurrahman Wahid. When he was pushed out of office in 2001, Indonesia was again in turmoil, and this time Mrs. Megawati took over. She has proved a steadying influence, stabilizing the economy and giving political stability.

In final campaign debates last week, the president defended her record.

She said her economic performance is solid with price and currency rates stable, the constitution guaranteeing democracy and an independent judiciary.

But many voters believe she has abandoned reformasi, and they are looking for change. They say she is aloof and her administration has done little to tackle the corruption that permeates society, and complain of the stagnant economy.

In the final days of the election, Mrs. Megawati has tried to promote herself as a woman of the people and promised to do more to fight endemic corruption. She said little about terrorism, despite the fact that Indonesia has suffered three devastating terrorist attacks under her leadership.

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