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Indonesians to Vote in First Direct Presidential Election Monday - 2004-07-01

Indonesians are going to the polls Monday to elect a president by direct vote for the first time in their history. The latest public opinion surveys show former security minister retired General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is leading by a wide margin, with more than 40 percent of the vote. Three other candidates are in a tight race for second place.

One of Indonesia's respected polling institutions, the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) says a survey shows that retired General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will get the most votes.

Foundation director Alan Wall says General Yudhoyono has a commanding lead in part because voters have few negative perceptions about him.

"People have a very positive view of his stance on major policies, like the economy, fighting corruption, security issues, a much more positive view of his stance on these than any other candidate," he explained.

Mr. Wall says the main questions on polling day are whether Mr. Yudhoyono will obtain the 50 percent majority he needs to avoid a runoff and who will come in second.

The latest survey shows former armed forces commander, retired General Wiranto, pulling several points ahead of his main rivals, President Megawati Sukarnoputri and Legislative Speaker Amien Rais, in the race for second place.

The fact that two army generals are frontrunners does not surprise political analysts.

Mr. Wall says that despite three decades of repressive military rule under former president Suharto, Indonesians still like a strong leader.

"People are looking for someone who's going to be firm as a leader, " he added. "45 percent of our survey said they would like to have a general or former general."

Political analyst Landry Subianto of Jakarta's Center for Strategic and International Studies says this is partly due to nostalgia for the relative economic prosperity under Mr. Suharto's New Order regime.

"This is a reflection of a failure of the civilian leaders in mobilizing people's support and in taking the opportunity of the post-New Order regime," Landry Subianto said.

Analysts note that in this election voters are far more influenced by personalities than by policies. Mr. Wall says voters are concerned about some issues, primarily those close to home.

"About 44 percent of the people are most concerned about economic issues, getting a job, keeping prices low," Mr. Wall noted. "Around a third of those are most concerned about issues of corruption."

Analyst Landry Subianto agrees, but says he is surprised that corruption and nepotism, big issues in the collapse of the Suharto regime, now seem important only to city dwellers while the rural majority have forgotten them.

In addition, public opinion surveys show that in spite of a wave of terrorist bombings, notably in Bali and Jakarta, that killed scores of Indonesians and foreign tourists, the issue of international terrorism was viewed with concern by less than two percent of those polled.

"People don't really pay attention to this because most of them [Indonesians] see this exclusively as international issues, not domestic issues," said Mr. Subianto.

He says that Indonesians' security concerns are about law-and-order, inter-ethnic conflicts and religious tensions.

Analysts note that there has been little violence before Monday's vote and say this could be due to political maturation, apathy or the fact that most voters have made up their minds.

Mr. Wall says the dozen surveys his organization conducted this year have revealed important changes in the way voters look at elections.

"They're not anywhere nearly as likely to be told what to do from the top," he added. "People want something that looks new, that's not necessarily associated with the old parties and they'll make up their own minds about that."

Finally, the surveys show that more than 90 percent of those polled say they will vote, indicating that six years after the end of dictatorship, Indonesians value their political liberties.