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 11 Apr 2009

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Stage set for presidential jockeying in Indonesia

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is in prime position to hold on to the country's top job after elections this week left his party the most powerful in the world's third-largest democracy, reported AFP.

Despite contested voter lists, shambolic preparations and pre-election violence that killed five people in remote Papua province, the legislative election Thursday involving 171 million voters has generally been seen as a success.

With presidential elections due in July, horse-trading among a crowded field of presidential contenders has begun, and with his Democratic Party likely ascendant in the new parliament, the election looks like Yuhdoyono's to lose.

It will be a long and convoluted process, with personality and money trumping serious policy debate. But it will be a major progression since Indonesia shrugged off the dictatorship of Suharto in 1998, analysts said.

Then, the country teetered uneasily between reform and disintegration amid the economic turmoil of the Asian financial crisis, fuelling separatism and religious fanaticism.

Now, the biggest problem is sitting back and watching the likely peaceful contest between a "wishy-washy" camp led by the liberal-minded but indecisive Yudhoyono, who was elected in 2004 on an anti-corruption platform, and the woman he defeated five years ago, ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri.

"For me this is a big day that we have managed to come this far with our new democracy, which in fact is not just surviving but stabilising," political analyst Wimar Witoelar said.

But he added that the election was a case of form over content in the absence of a new generation of political leaders or any serious policy debate.

"It's not a big day for any resurgence of leadership or reform," he said.

Yudhoyono's Democratic Party won the most seats in the country's 560-seat lower house with 20.48 per cent of the vote, according to an unofficial count based on a sample of ballots from 2,100 polling stations.

Final official results could take a month to arrive, but the party appears to be the only one with a chance of passing a new threshold of 25 per cent of the popular vote, or 20 per cent of parliamentary seats, allowing it to field a presidential candidate without entering into a coalition with another party.

That would put Yudhoyono ahead of Megawati's Democratic Party of Struggle, which won 14.33 per cent of the unofficial count, and the Golkar Party of his Vice President Jusuf Kalla, which won 13.95 per cent.

While Yudhoyono's sky-high popularity is what pushed the Democratic Party into the lead, he could still be out-manoeuvred in the months to come, Indonesian Institute of Social Sciences analyst Dewi Fortuna Anwar said.

"Don't forget Megawati did lose. No candidate can say they have the election in the bag," Anwar said, referring to the 2004 election, which Megawati entered as the incumbent and favourite.

Complicating the race is the fact that polls indicate there could be nine parties in parliament, including a clutch of Islamic parties. Although at their lowest ebb yet, with around 26 per cent of the vote, the Islamic parties' support will remain crucial.

Also a factor are other presidential hopefuls including the hereditary sultan of the ancient city of Yogyakarta, Hamengkubuwono X, and Prabowo Subianto, an ex-general once married to a daughter of Suharto, whose stained human rights record means he is banned from travelling to the United States.

Despite his new Gerindra party looking set to gain less than five per cent of the vote, buckets of cash and a populist economic message amid a slowing domestic economy could see Prabowo emerge as a "dark horse" third-party candidate, Anwar said.

“It's an interesting phenomenon. It's rather scary," she said.

"He would be a real challenge for Yudhoyono if he gets nominated."

Prabowo aside, most observers will be looking to see where Golkar goes, Paramadina University lecturer Bima Arya Sugiarto said.

Golkar's Kalla has spent recent weeks flirting with abandoning his partnership with Yudhoyono as deputy vice president to team up with Megawati.

The party's lacklustre showing in the legislative vote could change that.

"If Golkar only gets third position I believe the best position for Golkar and Jusuf Kalla would be returning to Yudhoyono's camp. So we would see Yudhoyono and Kalla versus Megawati (in alliance with) the sultan or Prabowo," Sugiarto said.




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