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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 September, 2004, 14:09 GMT 15:09 UK
Young and old ponder Indonesian poll

By Rachel Harvey
BBC correspondent in Jakarta

Indonesian men eat dinner while they watch presidential candidate Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in a televised discussion, Sept. 16, 2004
This is the Indonesian people's first chance to choose their president
Looking like an aging rock star, 53-year-old Harry Rusli spends his days teaching children and smoking cigarettes.

But to most Indonesians he is better known as an outspoken critic of the former political establishment - imprisoned for his views during President Suharto's authoritarian regime.

On Monday, Mr Rusli, along with 150 million other Indonesians, will be given his first chance to vote for Indonesia's new leader.

But he told the BBC that he will not even bother to cast his ballot, because he is so disillusioned with his country's politics.

"Politicians are just as bad now as they were before. There are lots of dirty games going on in parliament. Money has corrupted politics, and it's like we're living near a gutter and we don't notice the bad smell anymore," he said.

One candidate is [like] a cat in a sack - and we don't know if it's a good cat or a bad cat. The other one we know is a bad cat. So we can't choose
Harry Rusli, 53-year-old veteran campaigner
Mr Rusli has no faith in either of the two candidates who got through to the final round of the election - current President Megawati Sukarnoputri and her former security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

"One candidate is [like] a cat in a sack - and we don't know if it's a good cat or a bad cat. The other one we know is a bad cat. So we can't choose," he said.

"I cannot tell which one is the stinky one, because I've been living in such a stinky environment. To avoid voting for a stinky candidate, I will not vote."

Making a difference

But not everyone has given up hope. Firliana Purwanti was one of the many student protesters who forced President Suharto from power in 1998, and she intends to use the democratic right she fought so hard for.

"I always believe that even one [person] can make the difference," she said.

"Democracy is about giving our trust to a person to lead this country. We give them five years, a very reasonable period of time... but if they disappoint us, we can always vote for another person, so that's how we can maintain our democracy."

I always believe that even one [person] can make the difference
Firliana Purwanti, former student protester
Now a researcher campaigning for women's rights, she admits that Indonesian politics is far from perfect, but says it is important that people at least participate.

"Some people say that their votes won't make any difference," she said. "Others say that people these are days are still easily influenced - they will vote for whoever someone else tells them to vote for."

But she questions that logic, citing the sheer size of the Indonesian electorate.

"Are you sure that these two candidates have the capacity to influence all these people? I don't think so," she said.

Suharto's legacy

While the young look to the future, the older generation is reflecting on how much has already changed.

Rahim Ruskan was a leading state prosecutor during the Suharto years, and as a government employee he voted the way he was told to vote.

This is a new era for us, for the Indonesian people. We have our freedom to make a choice about who will be the leader of this country
Rahim Ruskan, 73-year-old former government employee
"Under the Suharto regime I had to obey all the rules, as decided by the government, so there was no way to do anything other than what was ordered. There was only one candidate for president - there was no candidate besides Suharto," Mr Ruskan said.

Now the 73-year-old says he is happy those days are behind him.

"I think this is a new era for us, for the Indonesian people. We have our freedom to make a choice about who will be the leader of this country," he said.

But he conceded that while the political situation had got much better in the past few years, the same could not be said about Indonesia's economy.

"If you compare things to the Suharto era, maybe things are worse, because everything is more expensive [and] unemployment is racing," he said.

Nevertheless, Mr Ruskan is in no doubt that a push towards democracy is sorely needed.

"There are people who say that democracy is going too fast for the common people in Indonesia, where most people are not educated, but in my opinion this is the right time for people to make their own choice, because if not, the same problems will continue," he said.

The majority of Indonesia's registered voters are expected to turn up at polling stations on Monday to exercise their new-found right to chose their own president.

Their decision will dictate the direction of Indonesia's next step down the road to full democracy.


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