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Singing general poised to win JAKARTA - Hafi, a 35-year-old businessman, is nostalgic for the old days of military dictatorship in Indonesia. Six years after the democratic overthrow of military ruler Suharto, he is fed up with the turmoil that he blames on civilian leadership. And so on Monday he will vote for one of Suharto's former generals, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a charismatic populist who has soared dramatically to the top of the polls in Indonesia's presidential contest.
"I miss the stability and security of the old days," the Jakarta businessman says, munching a meal of fried chicken in a fast-food restaurant. "Yudhoyono is a military guy and he will have a strategy for bringing security. He is a very firm, strong leader. A civilian cannot solve the problems of this society. There are too many different ethnic groups, too many killings."
Latest opinion polls predict that 40 to 45 per cent of voters will support Mr. Yudhoyono -- more than twice the level of support for any other candidate, including the current president, Megawati Sukarnoputri. "He has achieved rock-star status," boasts his campaign strategist, Rachmat Witoelar.
"He can't go to an airport without being pushed to the wall by a crowd of supporters. We are selling him to the common people by bypassing the whole party system. People are fed up with the party system." The man who is expected to become Indonesia's next president is a 54-year-old retired lieutenant-general -- popularly known as SBY -- who has been immersed in the military world for his entire life.
The son of an army officer, he visited the national military academy while still a young schoolboy and later graduated from the same prestigious academy as the top cadet in his class. Married to the daughter of a famed general, he commanded an airborne battalion and played a murky role in the campaign to crush the East Timor independence movement in the 1980s.
He was chief of staff in the Jakarta military command when army-backed mobs violently stormed the headquarters of the democratic opposition in 1996, although his supporters say he was not directly involved. After the collapse of the Suharto regime, he remodelled himself as a moderate military reformer and in 1999 he gained a post in the national cabinet. But already he was plotting his path to a more ambitious goal: the presidency.
He held a series of brainstorming sessions with one of Indonesia's top pollsters, Denny Januar Aly, a U.S.-educated political expert who helped him learn the secrets of American-style image making. Soon he was studying the polls and mastering the art of television. The pollster advised him to get on TV as often as possible even if he had to become a singer to do so. In a memorable appearance on the local version of the American Idol show, Mr. Yudhoyono sang a famous pop song (There's a rainbow in your eyes) that had the entire crowd crooning along and screaming his name.
He chose the song because the pollster had advised him to court the youth vote. "He was like a superstar," Mr. Aly said. "I always advise him to go on any popular television show, to speak or to sing. About 60 per cent of our population has only an elementary-school education. They are very simple and they don't think about abstract things. They just think he is handsome and a good singer. So everywhere he goes, he sings."
Mr. Yudhoyono showed his charisma at a campaign event this week with youth activists in Jakarta, where he joined a chorus of singers on stage, clapping and waving to the crowd. One of the activists began weeping as he praised a poem that the ex-general had written. "We need a leader who has a sense of art," the youth activist said through his tears. "We are so tired of the conditions in our country, so now we are pinning our hopes on him."
The candidate was mobbed as he left the auditorium, shaking hands with fans who snapped his photo with camera-equipped cellphones. "Long life, SBY," they chanted. "I am like your brother, I want to struggle for Indonesia if God gives me the way," Mr. Yudhoyono told the crowd. "It's essential to have a leader who is close to the young generation."
Some human-rights leaders are worried that Mr. Yudhoyono will quietly clear the way for a revival of military power in the country. More than a dozen ex-generals are working on his campaign team. He has backed away from an earlier promise to dismantle the military's territorial network, which has given it extensive influence at the town and village level across the country.
But many analysts believe his policies would not be significantly different from those of the existing government. The military is already a powerful force in Indonesia, blocking any challenge to its territorial structure. In the April parliamentary election, 48 ex-generals were elected, winning almost 10 per cent of the seats.
"The military culture in Indonesia is still very strong," said Kusnanto Anggoro, a military analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. "I'm very worried about the militarism in Indonesia," he said. "We don't have an accountable mechanism to control the military. Civilian leadership is seen as indecisive, and people think that only the military is capable of effective government. But we need to show the outside world that we can have a civilian leader.
"It's been only a few years since the Suharto regime. It would be a very bad symbol if we went back to a military leader."

Posted in Elections @ 03 July 2004 00:01 CET by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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