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Richard Ehrlich: Indonesia's Presidential Election

Indonesia's Presidential Election

by Richard S. Ehrlich

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- President Megawati Sukarnoputri's perplexing rule has been punctuated by terrorists' bombs in Bali and Jakarta, while her nicknames as ''The Queen of Silence'' and ''The Sphinx'' have not kept her from condemning the U.S. war in Iraq.

Like many of this equatorial archipelago's historic edifices, however, Mrs. Megawati's aloof, rotund appearance may soon become an exhibit from the past after voters go to the polls on Monday (July 5) to elect the country's sixth president.

"Megawati, bad," sneered a restaurant waiter who voted for her in 1999 when she rode to the vice-presidency on the dreams of the downtrodden.

"Her husband, corrupt. She also corrupt. We thought she would help us but no, she was the same as the others," he added, asking not to be identified because of the opinions he voiced.

"SBY," he then exclaimed, gesturing with a thumbs' up to endorse a retired army general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is often referred to by his initials and widely predicted to win.

"SBY is not corrupt," the young waiter insisted. "Megawati never spoke, but SBY says many good things about how he will fix things."

Whoever wins the election inherits a nation withering from a crippled economy, Islamist terrorism, scattered attacks on Christians, an insurgency in Aceh, massive corruption and a pliable justice system.

During Mrs. Megawati's reign, the courts remained unable to prosecute wealthy ex-president Suharto for allegedly pocketing millions of dollars. Judges earlier declared him mentally unfit due to a series of strokes.

A U.S. bid to convict a detained Islamic cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir, for alleged links to terrorist bombings and other crimes also failed during her rule, though Mr. Bashir was recently re-arrested for a possible second trial.

Washington describes Mr. Bashir as one of the creators of the "foreign terrorist organization" Jemaah Islamiyah.

The imprisoned Mr. Bashir denied the charges and claimed the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency invented Jemaah Islamiyah to intervene in Indonesia and kill Muslims.

"I support Osama Bin Laden's struggle because his is the true struggle to uphold Islam, not terror -- the terrorists are America and Israel," Mr. Bashir said in October 2002, according to the British Broadcasting Corp.

Foreign investors meanwhile shunned Jakarta because of its shaky security.

When Islamist terrorists bombed a tourist-packed nightclub on the island of Bali in October 2002, killing 202 people, newly elected Mrs. Megawati's administration convicted several Indonesians.

That impressive crackdown was marred by a car bomb in front of the U.S.-owned JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August 2003 which killed 12 people, injured 150, and sent renewed shudders through the financial sector.

In a surprising result, Mrs. Megawati's powerful Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs, Mr. "SBY" Yudhoyono, was soon basking in the lime-light for doing much of the detective work which led to the arrests of key suspects in the Marriott case.

On the gritty streets of Jakarta and elsewhere in this overpopulated, politicized nation, critics cited Mrs. Megawati's penchant for watching light entertainment, including TV cartoons, and going on shopping sprees instead of repairing political and social problems.

They said she was not an intellectual -- weak on economics, law and politics -- and was anxious to stroke the poorly disciplined, trigger-happy military for support.

While Mrs. Megawati appeared introverted, Mr. Yudhoyono became the dynamic, no-nonsense politician watched by more than 148 million eligible voters.

Mr. Yudhoyono distributed wanted posters with sketches of suspected terrorists, and held news conferences to bolster confidence.

Washington, meanwhile, was unamused by Mrs. Megawati's harping on the Pentagon's desperate unilateral military action in its war on terrorism and invasion of Iraq.

"A surge of unilateralism in international affairs has shunted aside the established democratic ways of resolving disputes between and among nations," Mrs. Megawati said in a speech on Wednesday (June 30) opening the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers' meeting.

"The conflict in the Middle East and the unending war in Iraq continue to destablize the global landscape," she added.

Mrs. Megawati's frequent stabs at Washington were seen as bids for approval among Indonesians, who comprise the world's biggest Muslim population.

But with America concerned about Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah, and allegations it is linked to al Qaeda, Mr. Yudhoyono gained favor among U.S. and other officials obsessed with maximum security.

Mrs. Megawati is the daughter of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, and U.S. attempts to destablize his leftist regime instilled a deep suspicion in Mrs. Megawati about America's designs on this oil-rich Southeast Asian nation.

Born in Jakarta on Jan. 23, 1947, Dyah Permata Megawati Setyawati Sukarnoputri spent her childhood inside the palace during her father's tyrannical 1945-66 presidency.

She studied agriculture at a Bandung university but dropped out in 1967 after her father was toppled and placed under house arrest by Gen. Suharto.

Gen. Suharto -- with U.S. financial, military and diplomatic support -- coordinated a nationwide killing of suspected leftists, resulting in the slaughter of 300,000 to one million people, plus an estimated 750,000 imprisoned, according to historians and human rights groups.

In 1970, Mr. Sukarno's daughter went to the University of Indonesia to study psychology but again dropped out, ultimately achieving only a high school diploma.

She was also limited in love. Mrs. Megawati's first husband perished in a 1970 plane crash. In 1972, she married an Egyptian diplomat posted in Jakarta.

"The marriage was annulled -- reportedly before it was consummated -- two weeks later when it became known that there had not been any official declaration of her first husband's death," the Jakarta Post reported.

Her third wedding, in 1973, was to her current husband Taufiq Kiemas, who joined her in the House of Representatives in 1987 when they both gained seats.

Under his wife's presidency, he wielded power as her close adviser.

"Her husband, Taufiq Kiemas, has been busy indeed, his footprints visible in most major business deals and, so it is alleged, his own hands in investors' pockets," wrote Scott Thompson, an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration and professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts.

In 1998, President Suharto was toppled by a student-led insurrection and his successor Bacharuddin J. Habibie was later replaced by the blind and crippled Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid.

President Wahid chose Mrs. Megawati as his vice-president after she won 33 percent of a 1999 nationwide poll and became the most popular politician in Indonesia -- despite opposition from Muslims who insisted it was sacrilegious for a female to rule, even though Mrs. Megawati is Muslim.

She became president during a parliamentary no-confidence vote against Mr. Wahid for his incompetence, corruption and unconstitutional activities.

Bizarrely, when Mrs. Megawati was named president in July 2001, Mr. Wahid refused to leave the president's palace for several days, until his embarrassed relatives convinced him to stop his mindless tantrum, unlock the wrought iron gates and exit.

Mrs. Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, peaked as a hugely popular organization, but many people worried that she was unable to decide, or comprehend, complex issues.

But her quiet handling of the Moluccan islands in northern Indonesia resulted in a tapering off of major violence after thousands of people died in clashes between Christians and Muslims during Mr. Wahid's reign.

Campaigning for the presidency, meanwhile, focused mostly on personalities because all five candidates promised a better economy and an improved military.

Compared with Mr. Yudhoyono, the other candidates suffer charisma problems.

But there could be surprising upset by retired General Wiranto, despite being targeted for alleged war crimes committed when Indonesia's military and allied militias massacred thousands of people in East Timor, plus other abuses during his long years as Mr. Suharto's chief of the armed forces.

Mr. Wiranto denied allegations of wrongdoing and claimed "rogue elements" in the military disobeyed his orders forbidding indiscriminate killings.

Almost pathetically, the ousted, blind Mr. Wahid -- displaying his habitual facial twitches, nose scrunching and staccato of short snorts -- appeared on TV cajoling voters to elect Mr. Wiranto.

Wahid's brother, Salahuddin Wahid, is Mr. Wiranto's vice-presidential running mate.

They represent the ominous Golkar party, which simultaneously suffers and benefits from being Mr. Suharto's former dictatorship machine.

Another presidential candidate, politically crafty Amien Rais, could sprint ahead thanks to an estimated 10,000 mosques and 28 million Muslims in Muhammadiyah, or "Followers of Muhammad" -- an organization he earlier chaired.

On March 31, Mr. Rais demanded U.S. President George W. Bush and British leader Tony Blair be put on trial for crimes against humanity in Iraq.

"Why not? Maybe not now, but later when they become ordinary citizens and their action is determined as crimes against humanity, they will face the same fate as Slobodan Milosevic," Mr. Rais said, according to the state news agency Antara.

A widely predicted loser is Hamzah Haz who, despite being Mrs. Megawati's vice-president, was ditched by her this time around -- so he fashioned himself into a presidential candidate.

If no one wins at least 50 percent -- plus one vote -- of Indonesia's first-ever direct presidential election, the top two contenders face a second poll on Sept. 20, though Mr. Yudhoyono's fans insist he could nab it all on Monday (July 5).

** -ENDS-**

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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