Poised for reelection, Indonesia's president will face challenges in economy, corruption

Early results show President Yudhoyono is heading for a decisive victory. He must manage a slowing economy and a fractured Parliament that will challenge reform.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Indonesian presidential candidate and incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono holds up his ink-stained finger after voting at a polling station in Bogor, Indonesia on Wednesday.
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Voters in Indonesia appear to have handed President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono a second five-year term, raising hopes for continuity in steering an underperforming economy and keeping a lid on ethnic and religious tensions.

Sample results tallied by private polling agencies point to a landslide for Mr. Yudhoyono in Wednesday's election. Around 30 percentage points separate Yudhoyono from former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, with Vice President Yusuf Kalla trailing even further behind. Neither opponent is likely to concede just yet, however, as official results won't be released for nearly three weeks.

For many observers, the main question has been the margin of victory. If the winner polls below 50 percent, he or she faces a runoff in September against the second-place candidate. That now seems unlikely as unofficial tallies put Yudhoyono between 58 and 61 percent, with Ms. Sukarnoputri between 26 and 28 percent.

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In recent weeks, Yudhoyono's allies placed newspaper ads urging supporters to turn out Wednesday so that the country would save around $400 million by not staging a runoff vote. Mr. Kalla criticized the ads as inappropriate and said it was impossible to put a price on democracy.

Opinion polls showed Yudhoyono's lead barely faltered during months of campaigning that included three televised debates between the candidates. "It's clear that neither of his opponents could get any traction," says Jeffrey Winters, a politics professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who is currently in Indonesia.

Yudhoyono is a retired Army general who served as security chief under Sukarnoputri before winning Indonesia's first-ever direct presidential election in 2004. He is known as a cautious, indecisive reformer who favors stability and moderation over radical changes.

Economy focus of campaign

Much of the campaign turned on promises to maintain economic growth and spread the benefits among Indonesia's 235 million people, scattered across thousands of islands.

This allowed Yudhoyono to highlight his benign economic stewardship and social programs that have put cash and subsidized rice in the hands of the poor. The economy is slowing, but hasn't felt the whiplash of crashing export demand that has sunk other Asian trading partners.

Islam, the majority faith in Indonesia, had a symbolic role in the campaign as the wives of Kalla and his running mate were featured prominently wearing head scarves. Neither Sukarnoputri nor Yudhoyono's wife wears one, a fact that Kalla's camp sought to spotlight, apparently to little effect.

By completing his first term, Yudhoyono is already Indonesia's third longest-serving leader after Sukarno, the first president after independence in 1945, and Army General Suharto, whose 32-year iron-fisted rule ended in violent unrest in 1998. The restoration of democracy brought more chaos and ethnic conflict, fanning fears of a breakup, but the country has since regained its equilibrium.

Yudhoyono won praise from the United States and other allies for containing Islamic militants who plotted the 2002 Bali bombings and other Al Qaeda-inspired attacks. But he's been less eager to take on intolerant Islamic agitators who oppose liberal interpretations of the faith. Critics say he may become more beholden to such views as his coalition in Parliament depends on Islamic-based parties.

Will Yudhoyono push reform?

A bigger question is Yudhoyono's ability to attract foreign investors to an economy that is rich in natural resources but plagued by corruption, threadbare infrastructure, and inept governance.

By choosing Finance Minister Boediono, a nonpartisan reformer, as his vice president, Yudhoyono has encouraged those seeking root-and-branch reforms of the judiciary and other institutions.

But Yudhoyono will be constrained in his second term by a fractured Parliament and other centers of power that mitigate reforms, particularly those that penalize powerful business elites.

"There's not necessarily much ground for optimism in faster reforms or significant improvements [during a second term]. He still seems to be accommodating multiple interests," says Kevin O'Rourke, an independent political analyst in Jakarta.

Yudhoyono has a strong image as a clean pair of hands in a country awash in corruption. But critics say his probity doesn't extend to his Democrat Party, the largest in Parliament. The party recently proposed legislation that would hobble an independent anticorruption agency that had begun to make headway against rampant graft among politicians and bureaucrats.

In April, Indonesia's parliamentary elections were dogged by complaints over faulty voter rolls that excluded millions of potential voters. On Monday, the Constitutional Court ruled that unregistered voters could use an identity card to cast their ballot after a challenge from Kalla and Sukarnoputri. Over 176 million people were eligible to vote in Wednesday's election.

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