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Polls - Novice will unseat incumbent president

Monday, September 20, 2004

JAKARTA, Indoesia -- Indonesian voters hungry for change are expected today to do something that was unthinkable during the country's three decades of authoritarian rule -- toss out an incumbent president and vote in a political newcomer who has promised to crack down on corruption and revive the battered economy. Polls show Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with more than a 25 percentage point lead over President Megawati Sukarnoputri. Most analysts expect the former general will win the election in a landslide. Police said they have deployed nearly 140,000 officers across the vast archipelago to guard polling stations. There were fears of a terrorist attack after an explosion outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta on Sept. 9 that killed nine. The blast has been blamed on the al-Qaida-linked terror group Jemaah Islamiyah.

Since the bombing, police said they have received 10 to 15 bogus mobile phone text messages each day warning of terror attacks -- including one Friday that said three trucks laden with bombs were heading for Jakarta with plans to attack either a shopping mall or house of worship.

"We have come to the conclusion that the purpose ... was to create chaos before the election," Jakarta police Chief Firman Gani said. "The information is false."

Monday's election will complete a democratic process that began in April with parliamentary elections. It was followed in July with the country's first direct presidential election, which was won by Yudhoyono.

But because he didn't secure more than 50 percent of the vote, the 55-year-old Yudhoyono was required to face second-place finisher Megawati in a run-off.

At her house in an upscale Jakarta neighborhood, Megawati received hundreds of supporters who clutched her photo and chanted "merdeka," or freedom. It was the rallying cry of her father, Sukarno, who founded the country.

"Let's win this election peacefully," said a smiling Megawati.

Despite having to go to the polls for the third time in six months, voters said they were thrilled to have the chance to elect a president following Suharto's 32-year dictatorship and a chaotic, six-year democratic transition in which the three previous presidents were chosen by the legislature.

Yudhoyono "has a lot of confidence so I think he will make this country better," said noodle vendor Susilowati, proudly showing off her membership card from Yudhoyono's Democratic Party. "I'd be so happy if he won."

The two elections so far have gone off without violence and analysts say a peaceful political transition in Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, will be further evidence that democracy and Islam are compatible.

Both Megawati and Yudhoyono are practicing Muslims, but have a firmly secular outlook.

Yudhoyono is seen as having been tough on terrorism during his tenure as Megawati's security chief.

Washington is concerned about Jemaah Islamiyah providing a foothold for al-Qaida in the strategically vital archipelago of 13,000 islands straddling the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Yudhoyono is also seen by voters as a fresh face in the country who will address the country's endemic corruption and double-digit unemployment. And because his coalition is largely made up of smaller parties, voters say he won't be beholden to the political elite who have been blamed for blocking judicial and bureaucratic reforms.

Megawati, in contrast, has spent most of the campaign playing catch up and trying with mixed success to recapture the magic that got her elected in July 2001.

Faced with allegations that she was aloof and had abandoned her impoverished base, the media-shy Megawati has been seen daily shaking hands with the poor in slums and markets.

But she has been hampered by her links with the country's powerful military and a coalition that includes Golkar, Suharto's former political machine and the country's largest political party.


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