Indonesians set to ignore past by electing ex-general

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The Independent Online

When Indonesians stumble out of bed bleary-eyed tomorrow after staying up half the night to watch the Euro 2004 final, some may decide to give the polling booths a miss.

The timing of the match could influence the outcome of Indonesia's first direct presidential election, according to political analysts, who say undecided voters in this football-mad nation may opt to stay at home after the final, which begins just before 2am Jakarta time.

A retired general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is expected to be elected leader of the world's largest Muslim country. The latest poll gives him 35.8 per cent, compared with 17.5 per cent for the incumbent, Megawati Sukarnoputri. Another former general, Wiranto, is on 16.5 per cent.

The match could reduce turnout, according to Daniel Sparingga, a political scientist from Airlangga University. "Possibly people won't get up or will sleep in," he said. "Voters who have doubts about who to vote for will quite possibly not go to polling stations."

Mrs Megawati has little chance of being returned to power. Indonesians who idolised her as the daughter of the country's founding president, Sukarno, now regard her as incompetent and remote. "Mega has done nothing for the poor people," said Amik, 23, feeding her baby in a slum area of Jakarta.

Mr Yudhoyono, by contrast, has displayed a remarkable gift of empathy with the "wong cilik" - the "little people" - while touring the vast archipelago during the month-long campaign. "He is a good man," said Ono Wanilah, who drives one of Jakarta's ubiquitous "ojeks" - motorcycle taxis.

Mr Yudhoyono sprang to prominence as Mrs Megawati's chief security minister. So ardently is he being wooed by businessmen, intellectuals and religious leaders that the Jakarta Post described him as "the new cute girl at school". Western countries like him too, thanks to his robust stance on tackling terrorism in Indonesia, a hotbed of Islamist extremism.

Despite distrust of the military by Indonesians who suffered for 32 years under the dictatorship of Suharto, who was brought down in 1998, Mr Yudhoyono's past does not appear to be a handicap. But human rights groups note that he was one of Suharto's hand-picked generals, and accuse him of responsibility for an army-backed assault on the offices of an opposition party in 1996, which left five people dead. At the time, he was military chief in Jakarta. Last year Mr Yudhoyono helped to plan the military crackdown on separatists in Aceh. Recently he declared that democracy and human rights "cannot become absolute goals, because pursuing them as such will not be good for the country".

Mr Wiranto, meanwhile, has a bedrock of support despite being indicted by a United Nations-backed tribunal for crimes against humanity in East Timor in 1999.

Activists who risked their lives to topple Suharto are horrified that the democratic process now looks likely to yield a president with a military background. They say this would be a grave setback for the young democracy.

Some observers attribute the appeal of the two former generals to a desire for strong leadership. Others blame the limited talent pool. Wimar Witoelar, an author and columnist, said: "Under Suharto, all the outstanding civilians were killed or persecuted or marginalised. We have to wait for a new generation of leaders to rise up."