- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2004

JAKARTA, Indonesia — He sings pop songs at his campaign rallies, writes poetry and used to play guitar in a band. He also is an ex-general who could become Indonesia’s next president.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono — universally known as SBY — is projected by opinion polls to win today’s election in which Indonesia for the first time chooses a president by universal suffrage.

The vote is a gargantuan undertaking in the world’s largest Muslim nation, which has at least 155 million eligible voters across 13,000 islands and three time zones. The first polls opened in eastern Indonesia at 7 a.m. local time (6 p.m. in Washingtonyesterday).

The election commission says official results will be available within 10 days. The Washington-based National Democratic Institute will release its projections within 24 hours of the vote.

Mr. Yudhoyono, 54, is something of an enigma. Many wonder whether he has the grit and decisiveness needed to govern Indonesia, with its endemic poverty, corruption, separatist wars and religious frictions. He says he has the answers, but he does not reveal the specifics.

His soothing, Mr. Clean image seems to be working. Polls show Mr. Yudhoyono within a few percentage points of topping 50 percent to win outright and obviate the need for a runoff vote, which would be held Sept. 20.

Mr. Yudhoyono is at least 25 percentage points ahead of his former boss, President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is seeking re-election. Where she seems remote and short-tempered, Mr. Yudhoyono is the consummate politician: smooth, well-spoken, reassuring.

Though Mr. Yudhoyono promises to pursue democratic reforms, his candidacy is a reminder of the military’s deep involvement in politics during the decades up to the 1998 overthrow of the dictator Suharto.

Mr. Yudhoyono’s military background includes stints in East Timor, the Portuguese colony Indonesia invaded and occupied in 1975. Questions have been raised about his purported role in human rights abuses during the dictatorship, including a 1996 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

But the public may be ready for another military man, provided he’s a democrat.

“Indonesians are tired of civilians who can’t seem to fix the economy and ease unrest,” said political analyst Salim Said. “Many genuinely like him. Others see him as the lesser evil.”

One such civilian is Mrs. Megawati, who scored some initial economic successes but now suffers from a widespread perception that she cannot improve living standards or tame the corruption pervading Indonesian life.

Mrs. Megawati said in a televised speech yesterday that the vote was a critical step in Indonesia’s democratic reform process, and she appealed to Indonesians to accept the winner for the sake of national unity.

“The eyes of the world are once again focused on us as a nation, waiting for further proof that we are able to get through the complicated transition period to an era of modern democracy,” she said.

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