Democracy thrives in largest Muslim state

Monday's vote is for the first president directly elected by the people of Indonesia.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Indonesia's presidential favorite Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spent part of a three-day break between the campaign and Monday's historic election not resting, but writing.

The 55-year-old former general spent last Saturday taking a day-long exam to finish his part-time studies for a PhD in economics.

If recent polls are accurate, General Yudhoyono will soon have an opportunity to put his schooling to use as Indonesia's next president.

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The Washington-based International Foundation for Election Systems says that 61.2 percent of the respondents surveyed would vote for Yudhoyono in Monday's election against current President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who received only 29.3 percent of the vote.

Some 154 million Indonesians are expected to cast ballots Monday in a second-round poll in the first direct presidential elections in the country's 59-year history. This vote, say analysts, is part of a maturation of the country's democracy, which was born in 1998 after the end of a 32-year dictatorship. The past six years have seen a fitful transition in which the three presidents were chosen by an elite body of legislators.

In the world's most populous Muslim nation, Yudhoyono is a practicing Muslim who was educated in a traditional pesantren, or Muslim boarding school.

That, says Ulil Abshar Abdalla, a prominent liberal Islamic scholar, is part of his appeal: a clean image, at a time when corruption is seen as a major problem. "The voters' reasoning was clear. They opted for Susilo for his personal image," Mr. Ulil says.

Still, Yudhoyono says he favors a secular approach to public affairs.

Yudhoyono's rise has been meteoric, so much so that few analysts expected his fledgling Democratic Party to win 10-percent of the seats in the April's parliamentary elections. Yudhoyono finished first with 34 percent of the vote in the first round of the elections in July. But the margin was not wide enough for an outright victory, giving Megawati a second chance to defend her job.

The telegenic Yudhoyono has also proved popular with foreign governments, including the US. As senior security minister, Yudhoyono won applause for swift action in October 2002 after terrorist attacks in Bali carried out by members of the Jemaah Islamiyah, a militant group linked to Al Qaeda.

"He has a clear vision that Megawati never had," says Sofjan Djalil, a senior economic adviser to Yudhoyono.

Still, if he wins Monday, Yudhoyono will quickly face the problems that bested his predecessor Megawati. Polls show voters are dissatisfied with an Indonesian economy still shaking off the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. Jakarta has also transferred much political power to outer regions in the 17,000-island archipelago, in an ambitious decentralization program. Separatist tensions still flare in two provinces, Aceh and Papua. On Sept. 9, a bomb attack on the Australian Embassy here was a strong reminder that terrorist cells are still active.

Yudhoyono's military career began in 1973, when he was named best graduate of the national military academy. Peers say he benefited early on from marrying the daughter of a prominent former Special Forces commander, rising quickly through the ranks. He displayed a sharp intellect, trained in the US at Fort Benning, Ga., and Leavenworth, Kan., and later earned a master's degree in business at Webster University in Missouri. "He's that rarest of things, an intellectual general," former President Abdurrahman Wahid once said.

Yudhoyono has deftly managed his transition from military to civilian life. In 2000, President Wahid moved Yudhoyono out of the military post of territorial affairs and into the cabinet post as mines and energy minister. Later, as security minister, Yudhoyono was fired for refusing to declare a state of emergency, thus allowing Wahid to dissolve parliament.

Heavy media coverage raised Yudhoyono's profile after the 2002 Bali bombing. He became a central figure in the drafting of Indonesia's first counterterrorist law. Yudhoyono also attempted to draft a peace agreement with Acehnese rebels in 2003 that collapsed in May of that year.

This past March, Yudhoyono's popularity skyrocketed after a heated argument with Megawati over his presidential aspirations. Whilst Yudhoyono has enjoyed a charmed run from the local media, rivals and peers often describe him as a procrastinator. Lt. Gen Prabowo Subianto, former Indonesian Special Forces chief and a failed presidential contender once called Yudhoyono a "fence sitter."

Some human rights activists complain about the election of a general in a country trying to shake free of three decades of military rule. "Susilo is a military career man trying hard to be a civilian," says Wimar Witoelar, a political commentator.

If he wins, Yudhoyono will face the challenge of passing controversial bills with the guaranteed support of only 10 percent of the parliament. He will also face an alliance between his rivals Megawati's PDI-P party and Golkar, the former ruling party.

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