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Low-Key Campaign Marks Indonesia's Historic Presidential Election  - 2004-09-17

In Indonesia, campaigning has ended and voters are preparing to go to the polls Monday to elect their next president for the first time. Opinion polls show that President Megawati Sukarnoputri is trailing former security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in the race, but she has narrowed his lead in recent weeks.

The three-day campaign for Monday's runoff election was subdued compared with the first round presidential vote in July.

Back then, the candidates held lively, noisy rallies, with singing and cheering. President Megawati Sukarnoputri and former security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono emerged from that vote as the final two candidates, out of a field of five.

For this round, Ms. Megawati and Mr. Yudhoyono have made low-key appearances before select groups, and they have relied on the mass media as their primary way of reaching voters.

President Megawati has used extensive television advertising to underscore her experience and leadership qualities.

Mr. Yudhoyono has used his television spots to appeal to voters' aspirations for jobs and better living standards.

The highlight of the campaign was a series of live television programs in the past few days, in which the candidates explained their positions before panels of academics and civic activists. The candidates did not appear together. The exchanges were mild. And public response was low.

Ms. Megawati sought to highlight the achievements of her three-year presidency.

In one appearance, Ms. Megawati said the economy has stabilized in areas such as inflation and currency exchange rates. She noted that the constitution now guarantees democracy and an independent judiciary.

Mr. Yudhoyono, a retired army general, was asked how he would address human right violations that are a legacy of three decades of military dictatorship under former President Suharto.

Mr. Yudhoyono noted that the constitution allows restrictions on human freedoms when there is a threat to public order, a reference to emergency measures in the restive provinces of Aceh and Papua. But he said such measures should not be used to undermine human rights.

The elections come 11 days after a bomb attack at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta killed nine people and wounded more than 170. It was the third major terrorist attack in two years.

Yet surveys show that the most important issues for voters are not security and terrorism, but rather corruption, high prices and jobs. Pollster Alan Wall is the head of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in Jakarta.

"The economic issues have consistently been by far the ones that more people choose as the most important issues," he explained.

He says other major issues include leadership, honesty and education.

Analysts say the two candidates have staked out similar positions on most issues. As a result, Mr. Wall says, the campaign has not been dominated by policy differences.

"Personality is still a more important issue to more voters than policies or other things," he said.

The six-year transition to democracy in Indonesia has not been easy. President Suharto was ousted in 1998 and an interim president was named. In 1999, the nation's top lawmaking body named Abdurrahman Wahid president, but he was ousted in 2001, after being widely seen as erratic and ineffective. Ms. Megawati, then vice president, took over.

This year is the first time Indonesians will directly choose their president. In March, they elected legislators and local officials in a rowdy, but fairly peaceful election.

Activists such as Tim Meisburger, with the Asia Foundation voter education group, are impressed by the voters' maturity.

"There are still problems with corruption and poor governance," he said, "but the culture of democracy has really taken root in Indonesia and that is a fine thing to see."

He says that Indonesians are taking advantage of their new power to directly choose their leaders. And they are quickly learning how to make those leaders accountable.