Subject: AAP Analysis: Indonesia's 'Year Of Voting Frequently' About To Kick Off

Indonesia's 'Year Of Voting Frequently' About To Kick Off

By Adam Gartrell, South-East Asia Correspondent

JAKARTA, March 5 AAP - It's one of the biggest and most convoluted democratic exercises on earth, and it's about to happen on Australia's doorstep: Indonesia's 'Year of Voting Frequently'.

About 170 million Indonesians will go to the polls at least twice in 2009: next month, to elect a parliament, and again in July, to elect a president.

The presidential poll will likely lead to a run-off between the top candidates, to be held in September.

Incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - SBY to most Indonesians - is the frontrunner, despite a tough four and a half years in the job.

The former military general has had to deal with the 2004 tsunami and other natural disasters, terrorist attacks and the ongoing fight against militant Islamists, the scourge of political and judicial corruption, and myriad economic woes.

While often criticised as indecisive, he remains very popular.

"He's riding high in the opinion polls," says Indonesia expert Damien Kingsbury, of Deakin University.

"And as long as he doesn't make any mistakes, one would have to think he's in with a good chance."

Australian foreign policymakers, from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd down, are quietly hoping Kingsbury's right.

Australia's relations with Indonesia have never been better.

Rudd has forged a close relationship with Yudhoyono. As he delighted in pointing out last month, he met with his Indonesian counterpart no less than seven times last year.

"We've now entered that into the Guinness Book of Records under the bilateral relations heading," Rudd quipped.

Yudhoyono is a cleanskin, he's competent and he seems genuinely committed to democracy. He's a cautious reformer, but a reformer nonetheless.

He hasn't won the war against corruption, but he has made headway. Similarly, he hasn't won the war against terrorism, but it has been several years since Indonesia suffered a major attack.

Australian policymakers are not alone in their admiration of Yudhoyono. American and European governments will also be hoping for a Yudhoyono win, Kingsbury says.

"Yudhoyono is not perfect, but he is head and shoulders above the rest of the field," he says.

The rest of the field is, well, colourful.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, the former president and daughter of Indonesia's founding father Sukarno, is SBY's main rival.

Ibu Mega, as she's known, was Indonesia's leader for three years before SBY trounced her in 2004.

She insists she brought stability to Indonesia as it emerged from the authoritarian Suharto years. In reality, she was a do-nothing leader who had a frosty relationship with John Howard's Australia.

"Mega's biggest problem is she is just not a good administrator," Kingsbury says.

"Some people have suggested she is not very bright, but be that as it may, she is not a good administrator."

Two controversial former military strongmen have also thrown their hats into the ring.

Former armed services chief and accused human rights abuser Wiranto is one. In 2004, a UN-backed special tribunal issued an arrest warrant for Wiranto for his alleged role in the violence that surrounded East Timor's 1999 vote for independence.

The other is Prabowo Subianto, Suharto's son-in-law. But there's some baggage there too.

Human rights groups want Prabowo indicted for atrocities committed in East Timor by Indonesia's shadowy and controversial special forces unit, Kopassus, which he commanded.

Critics have also accused Prabowo of involvement in torture, murder and kidnapping in Indonesia during Suharto's final year in power.

Given their chequered pasts, Australia would find it difficult to deal with a President Wiranto or Prabowo. Any Australian government that got too cosy with either man would face criticism.

SBY could also face a challenge from his vice-president, Jusuf Kalla.

Kalla, chairman of Suharto's party Golkar, is obviously gearing up to run, but has not yet officially declared himself a candidate.

Kalla is a more attractive candidate, but his tilt is unlikely to be successful. For one thing, he is not Javanese. Most of Indonesia's leaders come from Java, Indonesia's most populous island, but Kalla comes from Sulawesi.

Kingsbury, for one, believes this is an almost insurmountable obstacle for Kalla.

The April elections will decide which of these contenders can actually run for the top job.

In the past, Indonesia's elections have been little more than personality contests - who looks and sounds the best, who has the best slogans, who can stage the biggest, most colourful rallies.

This year's elections are shaping up a little differently. Candidates are, more than ever before, talking about issues. They must, more than ever before, present plans and policies.

In large part, SBY is responsible for this shift.

In 2004, many Indonesians supported SBY because he came across as the candidate with the most substance, particularly next to Megawati, who ran a superficial campaign.

This time around, other candidates are trying to rise to SBY's game. The economy, naturally, is figuring as a big issue.

Terrorism, on the other hand, is not. With Indonesia attack-free for four years and the Bali bombers executed, terrorism is barely rating a mention.

But Indonesia is taking seriously the possibility of violence during the election season. The government will mobilise 1.4 million soldiers, police and other personnel to maintain security and guard polling stations.

Indonesia's troubled Aceh province is of particular concern.

Three Acehnese political figures have already been murdered in the run-up to the poll, threatening a fragile peace brokered in 2005 that ended a deadly 30-year separatist conflict.

All three murdered men were members of Partai Aceh, the political wing of GAM, the guerrillas who fought Jakarta for independence.

International Crisis Group expert Sidney Jones says it's unclear who killed the men. But whatever the truth, many Acehnese believe the Indonesian military is to blame, a perception that could lead to an escalation of the violence.

"I'm worried about the level of tension now," Jones says.

"I think a lot depends on the behaviour of both sides."

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