JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Indonesia took a major step toward full democracy this week in a direct vote for president, the first in its 59-year history.
While the Asian island nation still faces an 11-week wait until the second round to see who will ultimately take power, the July 5 presidential elections mark a major milestone for a country that labored under authoritarian rule just six years ago.
"This is a wonderful transition from authoritarian to democratic rule in just six years," said US president Jimmy Carter, who led a team of 60 election observers. "The people of Indonesia are to be congratulated."
Still, the results - which put a former general ahead - also underscore Indonesians' yearning for strong leaders who can tackle endemic problems of corruption, unemployment, and poverty.
In the weeks leading up to Monday's vote, retired general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono appeared to be headed for a sizable victory. Instead, because he did not garner more than 50 percent of the vote, he will face a close contest in a second-round vote on Sept. 20.
Official results late Wednesday showed Mr. Yudhoyono, known as SBY, in the lead with nearly 34 percent of the vote, trailed by incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri, with some 26 percent. Wiranto, another retired general, was in third place at 22 percent, with more than half of the 154 million votes counted.
While failing to finish first, the once-popular President Megawati can take encouragement. Her PDI-P party suffered a humiliating defeat in the April 5 parliamentary elections, when it lost a third of its seats.
Wiranto, the presidential candidate for the party Golkar, which enjoys the most parliamentary seats, may yet move up to second place once all the votes are counted. In the April elections Golkar initially trailed Megawati's PDI-P party, but then overtook it. Official results are expected by July 15.
All three leading candidates are secular Muslims in a country where some 88 percent of the 217 million people follow the Islamic faith.
The 2004 election is a major milestone in Indonesia's six-year-old transition to democracy that began in May 1998 when former strongman President Suharto stepped down after 32 years of authoritarian rule. Much of Suharto's power stemmed from the wartime 1945 constitution which grants the president wide-ranging emergency powers. In 2002, Indonesia reformed its constitution to vote for a direct election of its president.
In a five-year term, the new president will face an economy struggling to emerge from the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, separatist tensions, and the threat of terrorism. Western intelligence reports list Indonesia as major operations theater for Jemaah Islamiyah, a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda.
Megawati, who once enjoyed huge grass-roots support as a Suharto opponent and daughter of Indonesia's founding president Sukarno, has seen her popularity erode since her appointment in July 2001. She has been criticized as aloof and inarticulate. Unemployed workers lament her failure to repair the effects of the Asian financial crisis, and intellectuals have bemoaned her unwillingness to talk to the press. Increasingly, even Megawati's own supporters have complained she regards the presidency as a birthright.
SBY's popularity skyrocketed overnight in March after he resigned as Megawati's chief security minister. In contrast to the president, SBY projects a firm and thoughtful image. And Australian and US diplomats have praised SBY for deft handling of the investigation of the Oct. 12, 2002, bomb attack by Islamist terrorists in Bali.
Despite SBY's lead, he will face a strong challenge from Megawati over the next 11 weeks. According to PDI-P strategists, his main weakness is his lack of a strong party backing. His small Democrat Party won only 10 percent of the vote in April and has been criticized as ramshackle and unprofessional. His advisers say he will emphasize his reformist credentials in the run-up to the presidency.
Still, Robik Mukav, a spokesman for SBY, says he is so confident he is already forming cabinet lists. In relation to questions about forming an alliance with Golkar, SBY said that he would form alliances "without sacrificing personal principles."
Megawati's party is a well-funded, experienced machine with branches extending across the country. Her husband, Taufik Kiemas, a party official, has been active coordinating internal funding and lobbying for his wife's reelection. Strategists say the party has been conserving its resources for the second-round campaign.