Spectre of militarism as Suharto generals join the battle for Indonesian presidency

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is midnight at an open-air restaurant in Jakarta, and Wiranto, Indonesia's former military commander, is addressing a rapt crowd on the myriad problems facing the nation. Suddenly he changes tack. "Let's sing together," says the would-be president. Cradling a microphone, he leads his adoring fans in a rendition of a 1970s hit, "Goodbye My Love".

It is midnight at an open-air restaurant in Jakarta, and Wiranto, Indonesia's former military commander, is addressing a rapt crowd on the myriad problems facing the nation. Suddenly he changes tack. "Let's sing together," says the would-be president. Cradling a microphone, he leads his adoring fans in a rendition of a 1970s hit, "Goodbye My Love".

The following evening, Mr Wiranto takes part in a live television debate with rival candidates seeking the presidency in Monday's election. One panelist asks him whether people convicted of gross human rights violations should face the death penalty. With a face like thunder, he replies in the affirmative.

Pop star, poster boy and indicted war criminal: this is the man who aspires to the highest political office of the world's most populous Muslim nation. A United Nations-backed tribunal has charged him with responsibility for mass murder in East Timor in 1999.

Many blame him for the deaths of protesters in Jakarta riots that brought down the dictator, Suharto, in 1998.

But it is not Mr Wiranto's human rights record that seems likely to deprive him of the leadership of this turbulent, sprawling archipelago of 220 million people. It is the spectacular level of support for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, another Suharto-era general, whose popularity has confounded political observers.

Mr Yudhoyono - or SBY, as he is known - is backed by 35.8 per cent of voters, according to the latest poll. Mr Wiranto is trailing on 16.5 per cent. But while pundits marvel at the SBY phenomenon, the battle of the generals has sparked distinct unease in a country that rid itself of a military dictatorship just six years ago.

Mr Yudhoyono is not as controversial a figure as Mr Wiranto. But he too is tainted by his close association with the Suharto regime and its brutal military abuses. In a nation where democracy is still fragile, many fear a return of the bad old days of authoritarianism.

On Thursday a convoy of battered vans toured Jakarta's traffic-snarled streets, plastered with banners declaring: "Say no to militarism." Over crackling loudspeakers, their occupants shouted: "People need a president, not a commander." Some of the students who organised the convoy took part in the demonstrations that ousted Suharto after 32 years of iron-fisted rule. Chairal Ikhasan, 27, said: "We don't want another military leader. The military doesn't belong in government."

But their message seems unlikely to convince voters yearning for strong leadership in a country racked by poverty, corruption and ethnic strife. Since 2001, Indonesia has stagnated under its vacillating and aloof President, Megawati Sukarnoputri. She has been touring slums and markets in a belated effort to prove her populist credentials, but only a miracle would see her re-elected.

Indonesians want a firm hand at the tiller - and strength, to a population reared on Suharto, means a military uniform. While Mr Wiranto leaves a nasty taste in some voters' mouths, Mr Yudhoyono, 54, presents a palatable alternative. He is urbane, religious and articulate, with a reformist reputation.

To his compatriots, he seems honest and decent. What is more, he can sing as well as Mr Wiranto. Both men appeared on a local talent show recently, crooning and swinging their hips for spectators.

"SBY is very handsome," said Yuyun, a middle-aged woman whose tiny home in the slum neighbourhood of Kebon Kacang is festooned with photographs of her idol. She has even pasted pictures of him into her wedding album. "My husband is jealous," she says, laughing.

As Mrs Megawati's chief security minister, Mr Yudhoyono was the reassuring public face of her government. He appeared on television almost nightly, explaining policy on hotspots such as the Maluku Islands, where he is credited with resolving sectarian conflict. He also led the fight against domestic terrorism in the wake of the Bali bombings - a role that has endeared him to the US.

This is the first direct presidential poll in Indonesia's history; until now, the president was elected by parliament.

But few would have tipped Mr Yudhoyono as the people's choice. Now some predict that he could win more than 50 per cent of the vote, removing the necessity of a second round in November. The latest poll puts Mrs Megawati on 17.5 per cent, and Amien Rais, speaker of the national assembly, on 13 per cent. The other candidate, Hamzah Haz, the incumbent vice-president, has negligible support.

Comments