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Last Updated: Friday, 2 July, 2004, 01:25 GMT 02:25 UK
Army past overshadows Indonesia vote

By Rachel Harvey
BBC correspondent in Jakarta

Indonesians have their first chance to choose their leader on Monday, when the country holds its first direct presidential election.

The vote is being seen as a major step forward for a nation that just six years ago was still ruled by a military-backed strongman, Suharto, and which has seen three different presidents since.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is ahead in the polls

But the two front-runners for the top job are both retired generals, prompting questions as to how much has really changed during Indonesia's transition to full democracy.

The man opinion polls suggest will win is Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was security minister until he resigned in March.

The other old soldier battling for political power is General Wiranto, a former head of the armed forces who has been indicted for crimes against humanity in East Timor.

According to analysts, it is not surprising that military men are making a comeback.

After the rollercoaster ride of the last six years, voters appear to be craving a period of stability.

"The military is a symbol of discipline and order to some people," said Wimar Witoelar, a long term political observer.

"But we need to get away from the discipline of power, and move towards the discipline of law and the political system."

Wimar Witoelar
Whoever becomes president this time, we know that if he or she doesn't behave we can kick them out
Wimar Witoelar, political observer
In part, the desire for strong leadership is a consequence of the deep disappointment felt by many Indonesians at the current civilian government led by President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

The threat from Islamic militants and rampant corruption are together deterring foreign investment. Unemployment is rising, prices have gone up and religious and separatist conflicts persist.

What is more, the current administration has shown signs of using the same authoritarian tendencies as the old, military-backed regime.

Sidney Jones has spent years researching the fault lines which exist in Indonesia. Her work led to her expulsion last month.

She believes that Indonesians are now simply looking for competent leadership, and for many people, that means the military.

"It's a false assumption in my view, but certainly they haven't seen good examples of civilian leadership," she said.

General Wiranto campaigning in Aceh
General Wiranto has brushed off war crimes allegations
According to military expert Salim Said, it should not be surprising that former generals are running for president, in a country where the military has played such an important role.

"We have this reservoir of politically trained retired officers," he said.

"If this is still happening in five or 10 years from now, that would mean a failure of civil society to depoliticise the military."

Runner-up race

With campaigning now over, the main question is whether Mr Yudhoyono can get 50% or more of the votes and win the election in the first round.

If not, he will go head to head with the runner-up in a second round in September.

His popularity seems to stem from his image as a man who is prepared to listen, and who is serious about the fight against corruption, which has been one of the most important campaign issues.

He has also been called the Teflon candidate, because his past - he was a former member of the government and a serving officer under Suharto - does not seem to have stuck.

General Wiranto. despite the backing of the vast Golkar party machine, is now in a three-way dog fight for second spot.

His main rivals are current president Megawati Sukarnoputri and Amien Rais, who has run a surprisingly effective campaign positioning himself as the only true reformer among the list of five candidates.

Whoever wins will face a long "to do" list full of problems needing urgent attention.

According to Sidney Jones, the next five years in Indonesia will be critical.

"If the public gets completely disillusioned with the next president and the next government, there could be an opportunity for a return to authoritarianism," she said.

"Always in Indonesia it's been two steps forward, one step back, but it's the forward motion which dominates."

But Wimar Witoelar is confident that as long as the Indonesian people continue to cherish their right to elect their political leaders, democracy will be alive and well.

"After all," he added, "whoever becomes president this time, we know that if he or she doesn't behave we can kick them out".


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