JAKARTA – Heavyweight political parties have long held sway in Indonesia, but, with over half of all the votes counted, a new breed of independent-minded voters has chosen Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in a landslide as the first directly elected president of the world’s third largest democracy where Islam and freedom of choice go hand-in-hand.
Although he has refused to claim victory so far following Monday’s run-off, former general Yudhoyono has won 60 percent of the ballots with nearly half the vote counted. President Megawati Sukarnoputri has 40 percent.
Yudhoyono, 55, won the first round of the election on July 5, but failed to win an outright majority against Megawati, 57, and three other candidates, forcing the run-off.
Karwoto smiled as he walked out of the polling station in Tebet Timur, a heavily populated neighborhood in South Jakarta. "This time it is my choice," said the thin man defiantly, after having cast his vote.
Voting in Jakarta started at 7 a.m., two hours later than the far-flung islands of Papua and Maluku and one hour later than East Nusa Tenggara, Bali and Sulawesi.
To facilitate the vote, the government declared the day a public holiday and to make sure it was safe, it deployed over 189,000 police, 37,000 military personnel, as well as 1.2 million civilian security auxiliaries nationwide.
By all accounts, it was the safest election in history, without a single security problem or hiccup, both of which, although relatively minor, affected the first two national elections this year.
Local and international observers covered most of the polling stations, areas and subdistrict aggregation centers trying to ensure a fair result.
In the same Jakarta’s polling station where Karwoto cast his vote, Glyn Ford, the head of the European Union monitoring mission to Indonesia, noted that overall voter turnout may be lower than expected, but still around 80 percent.
"Any European country would love such a popular participation," he told IPS.
Over 150 million people registered to vote in 567,000 polling stations across the country.
Ades, 24, also spent the morning in South Jakarta where he checked for possible irregularities on behalf of the Democratic Party, Yudhoyono’s political vehicle.
"God willing, he will be the president and he will create jobs," he said. Ades, who joined the Democratic Party soon after Yudhoyono announced his candidacy in May, has never held a formal job.
However, as Yudhoyono gets ready to take the reins of the country, there are no clear indications on how he will deal with the country’s many problems.
Indonesia suffers from a lackluster economy that has never fully recovered form the 1998 East Asian financial crisis.
It has a very high unemployment and under-employment rate and it is plagued with endemic corruption, a fact that keeps most of the foreign investors away.
The country is also still fighting with separatist movements in Aceh and Papua and has become a hotbed for international and local terrorists and a target of attacks.
The Australian embassy’s bombing of Sept. 9 was the last in a series and followed the Hotel Marriott only by a year and the Bali bombings by just over two.
The embassy bombing killed nine and injured at least 180 in the capital’s main commercial district.
Still, according to the Washington-based International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), Yudhoyono was the chosen candidate in most of the 32 provinces of the archipelago, regardless of ethnic minority, religion, political affiliation, gender or age.
"These are not questions that people ask. At this moment they just want a change and the general impression is that Yudhoyono stands for a change as opposed to Megawati, who stands for stagnation and status quo," Ulil Absar Abdallah, program director at the Freedom Institute, a local think-tank, told IPS.
Even clearer was Deny J.A., a non-active executive of the Indonesia Survey Institute and a member of Yudhoyono’s entourage who said that at this stage, anyone would win against Megawati.
Clearly there wasn’t a lot of policy in this contest it was more a beauty contest, and one of the strengths of Yudhoyono’s candidacy appears to be that he was not Megawati.
"People have been unhappy with her for three years and the majority think that it is time for a change," Deny told IPS adding that Yudhoyono’s winning margin will be large because of his personality.
In Indonesia, 32 percent of IFES survey respondents indicated that "personality" was the main criterion of their choice.
Yudhoyono, who is an eloquent orator, in stark contrast to the aloof Megawati, has banked on his charisma, and during the campaign, appealed directly to the people at grassroots levels through a network of local organizations comprising fan clubs and pro-SBY groups a reference to the acronym he is popularly known as.
Megawati on the other hand, labored tirelessly and offered future ministerial seats to other parties in order to create a grand political machine, which included former arch-rival Golkar the country’s largest party and the political vehicle of former dictator Suharto.
The strategy was rejected by the people, who saw it as the same old horse-trading that used to take place in the former regime.
At this juncture, Megawati looks to be politically washed up as does the leader of Golkar, Akbar Tandjung.