Megawati lags behind her former security chief in poll

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Beneath a dirty tarpaulin strung across a rubble-strewn street, Ridwan reverently placed his ballot paper in a metal box and smiled softly. He had just voted in Indonesia's first direct presidential election and he was savouring the unfamiliar taste of democracy.

Beneath a dirty tarpaulin strung across a rubble-strewn street, Ridwan reverently placed his ballot paper in a metal box and smiled softly. He had just voted in Indonesia's first direct presidential election and he was savouring the unfamiliar taste of democracy.

Last night early results showed Mr Ridwan's chosen candidate, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, leading with 33 per cent of the vote. The incumbent, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was trailing five points behind on 28 per cent, with the retired army commander General Wiranto on 22 per cent.

General Yudhoyono, a former Megawati minister, is expected to win the race to lead the world's third-largest democracy, but he will have to fight the second-placed candidate in a run-off in November unless he wins more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round.

For 45-year-old Mr Ridwan, General Yudhoyono ­ known as SBY ­ is the answer to Indonesia's prayers. "SBY is firm, he is clean, he is good on television," he said. "Indonesia is in crisis, and we need a strong leader to deal with our problems." Organising the historic election, in which 140 million votes were cast, was a huge logistical exercise, with half a million polling stations set up across the sprawling archipelago. Voting across the turbulent nation, racked by separatist conflict in its eastern and western provinces of Papua and Aceh, appeared to have been remarkably free, fair and peaceful.

"This is a wonderful transition from authoritarian rule to purely democratic rule," said Jimmy Carter, the former US president, one of 500 international election observers. Others said the smooth running of the poll showed that Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, could become a beacon of democracy in the Islamic world.

As a four-star general, General Yudhoyono gave loyal service to the former dictator General Suharto, although his talents were organisational rather than operational. In civilian life he rose to prominence as Mrs Megawati's calm and articulate chief security minister. He led the crackdown on Islamic extremism after the Bali bombings in 2002.

Now his appeal appears to span social classes. In the impoverished Jakarta district of Manggarai, 25-year-old Lily Agustina said: "SBY is my choice. All my friends and neighbours are voting for him. He is strong and charismatic. I hope he can make prices go down. Rice, cooking oil and sugar are very expensive."

Across the city, Ita Mustafa, 44, sang General Yudhoyono's praises before driving off in a Jaguar. "He's smart and tough," she said.

The question is whether it will be Mrs Megawati or General Wiranto facing him in November. Support for the two has been neck-and-neck.

With only a lacklustre record to point to and few concrete policies to offer, Mrs Megawati urged voters to choose "the prettiest candidate".

General Wiranto, another former Suharto general, is expected to poll well despite being indicted for war crimes in East Timor in 1999, when he was head of the armed forces.

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