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Retired general winning first Indonesian presidential race

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Former army general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won the first round of Indonesia's presidential election, a private poll showed Tuesday. A runoff election in September appeared certain.

It was not immediately clear whom Yudhoyono would face in a second round, with President Megawati Sukarnoputri and another ex-general, Wiranto, locked in a tight race for second place.

"We thank God and the people for this," Yudhoyono's campaign manager, Rahmat Witoelar, told Metro TV, a private news station. "We will enter the second round with a vow to do better."

Monday's vote took place six years after the ouster of longtime dictator Suharto, and was seen a key step in the transition to democracy in the world's largest Muslim country.

Yudhoyono failed to win the 50 percent of votes needed for an outright victory in Indonesia's first direct presidential vote, according to the poll by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.

The democratic institute's poll of votes cast at 2,500 polling stations showed Yudhoyono ahead with 33.9 percent. Sukarnoputri was second with 24.9 percent and Wiranto had 23.8 percent.

The results were based on 63 percent of the total number of votes sampled by the institute, which is the international arm of the U.S. Democratic Party. The poll had a margin of error of 1 percentage point.

Similar polls by the same organization have accurately predicted results in dozens of elections around the world, including Indonesia's parliamentary elections in April.

Election officials ordered a recount of a large number of ballots that were declared invalid because voters had accidentally spoiled them by punching the paper when it was folded in two.

Hamid Awaluddin, an election commission member, said the problem could affect millions of the total ballot count of 140 million. But he said the process would not significantly delay the count, which could take up to 10 days.

"It's not a major obstacle," said Hamid Awaluddin, an election commission member. "We can safely say that the elections went well."

The election in the world's largest Muslim nation was a massive enterprise, with more than 155 million eligible voters spread across 13,000 islands and three time zones. Previously, presidents were selected by lawmakers acting as an electoral college.

"This is a wonderful transitional from authoritarian rule to pure democratic rule," said former President Jimmy Carter, who was observing the vote in Jakarta. "We have been greatly impressed by the orderly and well-planned procedures taking place this morning."

Election officials reported that balloting was peaceful and largely free of problems. But they said the voting got a slow start in the capital where many soccer fans were sleeping in after staying up overnight to watch the European championship match.

Endah Sari -- a housewife in Jayapura, capital of the eastern province of Papua, where polls opened first -- was among the first to vote Monday.

"As a citizen of Indonesia, I want to use my right to pick the president because this is important for all of us," said Endah Sari, a housewife in Jayapura, the capital of Papua, as she cast her ballot.

In Jakarta, voters said the election gave them a greater voice in running the country.

"This makes me feel like the freedom is real," said Budi Supriadi, a 40-year-old fish salesman. "This is a first step toward a better future."

Yudhoyono said he was confident of at least getting into a run-off, so long as there are no widespread voting irregularities.

"I have traveled the country and seen the people's support for me," Yudhoyono said.

Dozens of voters bent and kissed Yudhoyono's hand as he left the voting booth.

"We're suffering," said Mistar, a 40-year-old garbage collector who raises three children on a salary of $3 a day. "Yudhoyono seems like a credible man who will listen to us. I don't think Megawati cares."

Megawati emerged as the country's most popular politician in the tumultuous days following the 1998 ouster of Suharto, who had ruled Indonesia since overthrowing her father, Sukarno, in 1966. Her party won more than a third of the vote in free elections in 1999.

But in the past five years, Megawati's popularity waned because of her failure to combat corruption or improve the economy, and a perception that she is aloof and indifferent to the concerns of the people.

In contrast, ex-army general Yudhoyono is a polished operator who projects stability and reassurance.

Megawati said nothing to reporters Monday, but held up an inky finger -- a method used here to ensure that people only vote once -- to supporters at her home in an upscale Jakarta neighborhood.

Three other candidates are also running, including Wiranto, a former commander of the armed forces indicted by U.N. prosecutors in East Timor for crimes against humanity allegedly committed in that former Indonesian province in 1999.

Wiranto, though tainted by the U.N indictment, has secured the support of the country's largest party.

Pre-election surveys showed Yudhoyono leading with about 40 percent of the vote. Neither Megawati nor any other contender had more than 15 percent, and a fifth of voters were undecided.

The run-up to the election was orderly, with none of the protests, violence or investor jitters that have characterized political conflicts and rivalries in recent years.


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