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Indonesians Poised to Oust Their President

September 21, 2004|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Former security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono seemed set today to win Indonesia's presidential election, a victory that would mark the first time the country's leader was removed by popular vote.

Yudhoyono, a U.S.-trained former general who pledged to revive the economy and crack down on terrorism, was leading President Megawati Sukarnoputri 60% to 40%, with about half of the votes counted. Yudhoyono stopped short of claiming victory Monday evening but thanked Megawati for preparing a "good foundation for the development of democracy."

Yudhoyono is set to become the country's fourth leader in the six tumultuous years since former President Suharto, the long-serving military ruler, stepped down in the face of mass protests.

No incidents of violence were reported as voters trekked to polling stations across the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Speaking first in Indonesian and then in English to a throng of reporters outside his home in Bogor, south of Jakarta, the capital, Yudhoyono delivered what he called a speech of gratitude.

"It is time for reconciliation," he said in English. "I acknowledge during this competition that there is distance between the supporters of Megawati and myself. I expect we have to be more united in the near future to face the national challenge of building a better Indonesia."

An exit poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based group that promotes democracy, forecast a Yudhoyono victory of 61.2% to 38.8%.

"This constitutes a landslide," said Paul Rowland, the organization's Indonesia representative. "Indonesians have voted for change. We have seen an independent electorate that has voted for the person they want."

Megawati, once a symbol of opposition to the Suharto regime, disappointed many voters with her reclusive manner and detached style of leadership during her three years in office.

Characteristically, she offered no election night speech or statement.

A Yudhoyono victory is unlikely to mean a radical change in Indonesia's policies, but he is almost certain to prove to be a better decision-maker and communicator. Western officials hope that with his education and his experience as security minister he will be more aggressive in fighting terrorism.

The election came 11 days after a suicide car bombing killed nine Indonesians outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. Police believe the attack was the work of Jemaah Islamiah, a militant Islamic group with close ties to Al Qaeda that earlier bombed two Bali nightclubs and the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta.

Indonesian voters, however, rank terrorism as a low priority, and the latest bombing appeared to have little effect on the outcome of the election.

The campaign was largely one of personality, and the president was no match for the amiable, low-key Yudhoyono, who is widely seen in Indonesia as a charismatic figure.

Commonly known by his initials SBY, Yudhoyono lived in the United States for more than two years, including 18 months in Kansas, while attending military training courses. He also served as chief United Nations military observer in Bosnia-Herzegovina in late 1995.

Despite his service in the army and as security minister under two presidents, he has remained untainted by the human rights abuse charges and corruption scandals that have plagued the army and government.

Megawati's campaign argued that she deserved credit for restoring stability to the country and reviving the economy. But with more than 40 million people unemployed or underemployed, her contention rang hollow.

Many voters expressed concern about widespread government corruption, a shortage of jobs and education fees so high they could not afford to send their children to school.

Megawati relied on a strategy of building a coalition of political parties, including Golkar, the onetime political arm of the Suharto regime. Though her coalition was formidable on paper, Yudhoyono went outside the party system and appealed directly to the public for support.

University of Indonesia political science lecturer Salim Said said Yudhoyono drew backing from voters eager to exercise their newfound democratic freedoms and cast their ballots for a new face.

"For so many years we could not change our leader," Said said, "and now we enjoy changing our leader."

The poll amounted to the world's largest direct presidential election.

Voting took place at half a million polling stations across the archipelago. Voters marked their ballots by punching a hole in the photo of the candidate they favored.

Turnout was estimated at 80% of the country's 151 million registered voters.

The initial count took place in public at each polling place, with small crowds gathering to watch poll workers examine the ballots one at a time and call out how each was marked.

At the polling station closest to the embassy bombing, voters cast ballots next to a community building that suffered serious cracks from the blast.

The wall closest to the bombing appeared near collapse. Many neighborhood residents suffered minor damage to their homes, and some knew people who had been injured. But even here, the economy was the most important issue.

"I don't want much, but I hope Indonesia can be peaceful and prosperous and we can afford to send our children to school," said Een Agustina, 35, a traditional healer who cast her vote for Yudhoyono.

Mohammed Sodik, a garment factory worker, said he voted for Yudhoyono to fight corruption, improve the economy and make the country safer.

"From what I see, it seems that people want to have a change and SBY will win," he said. "I also want to have a change."

Yudhoyono won the precinct 133 votes to 77.

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