Elections in Indonesia

The Popularity of the Ex-General

In Indonesia's presidential election, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired general and former security minister in president Megawati's government, seems to be outpolling any of the four other presidential candidates. Marianne Kearney reports

In Indonesia's presidential election, an unexpected candidate is proving to be spectacularly popular. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired general and former security minister in president Megawati's government, seems to be outpolling any of the four other presidential candidates. Marianne Kearney reports

photo: AP
Ex general and presidential candidate Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at a rally in May 2004

​​Three days after election day, former Indonesian general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, continues to keep his lead as more votes are tallied from the nation's presidential election. The incumbent, Megawati Sukarnoputri, remains in second place.

Mr Yudhoyono, 54, has 34 per cent of the vote so far, compared to 26 per cent for Mrs Megawati and 22 per cent for former military chief, Wiranto.

In working class suburbs of Jakarta there are little shrines set up to Yudhoyono – images of his panda-bear like face beam from t-shirts, and posters hanging from the food stalls and taxi stands renamed in his honour.

The shrines are all part of the enormous fan club for Indonesia's rising political star and great white hope – Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or to most people just "SBY".

Hairy fan cult

51-year-old Budi Utario, who works as a motorcycle taxi driver is such a fan of the retired four-star general that he has had his hair shaved in the shape of the letters S, B and Y.

"We like SBY because we see he's the best", says Utario. "If SBY is elected president maybe there will be a change for the little people, for the traders, drivers, it won't be so expensive and difficult to live."

Not since Megawati Sukarnoputri, the famous daughter of Indonesia's first president Sukarno, ran for office in 1999, has there been such fervour on the streets of Indonesia.

But now people are fed up with the rising costs of food, and basic goods, combined with the president's harsh policies towards informal workers. Hundreds of cyclo drivers, i.e. bicycle or tricycle couriers, and snack food peddlers have been banned from operating on the streets of Jakarta by the Megawati-backed local administration.

Now people such as Budi Utario are turning their backs on Megawati.

"Before I chose mega but I don't like her anymore", he says. "I worked as a cyclo driver but my cyclo was destroyed and now I can't work as a cyclo driver anymore."

While President Megawati comes across as Javanese princess, born to rule, with little interest in the lives and needs of ordinary Indonesians, analysts say Yudhoyono is a humble contrast.

The ability to listen

In Bandung, the capital of West Java, after a 12 hour day on the road, Yudhoyono patiently listens while artists and a professor deliver agonizingly long speeches, demanding the candidate change Indonesia's woeful environmental record.

But spending time to listen to environmental groups appears to be smart politics on Yudhoyono's part.

As analyst Daniel Sparringga explains, humbleness and the ability to listen are exactly the qualities Indonesians are looking for in their next president.

"He is humble", asserts Sparingga. "And unlike the other presidential candidates, such as Megawati, and Vice-President Hamzah Haz or even General Wiranto, the former armed forces chief, Yudhoyono is seen as a new political player that hasn't been tainted with ineffective government or human rights abuses."

And it helps that he is a handsome singer, who can woo the crowds with his singing, admits Rachmat Witoelar, Yudhoyono's chief political strategist.

But perhaps most importantly, Yudhoyono has the gravitas that Megawati lacks, point out analysts.

Middle-class support

After six years of riots, sectarian, ethnic and separatist conflicts from Papua to Aceh, Yudhoyono's cool headed image is winning him many middle class supporters, who are looking for more than just charisma and good looks.

In a debate with another presidential candidate, Amien Rais, Yudhoyono says he would not use military force to solve ethnic or sectarian conflicts.

"I will use local solutions, we don't always need to run to Jakarta to solve such problems", he explains. "I believe local cultures can solve these problems."

Smart choice of running mate

Yudhoyono's choice of Jusuf Kalla as his vice- presidential candidate is a sign that he is serious about tackling Indonesia's problems say people such as Budi Pramadya, an employee of a telephone company in Jakarta.

The former social affairs minister Kalla is famous for brokering peace deals in Poso and Ambon, where a religious conflict had killed thousands.

Jusuf Kalla has the reputation of a planner and executioner. "Kalla's experience as executioner has been proven", thinks Budi Pramadya. "And since Yudhoyono became the co-ordinating minister in Megawati's cabinet, he brought peace in several places such as in Poso and Ambon."

In a country in which ethnic tension is on the rise, a leading figure with the ability to integrate is needed. But in case Yudhoyono does get elected, it is not clear in which direction he will steer. Just like any politician that wants to get elected in a democratic process, Yudhoyono says as much as necessary about his aims – but he also gives away as little as possible.

Marianne Kearney

DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE © 2004

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