Yudhoyono tops Indonesian poll shows retired general winning first round of Indonesian

JAKARTA, Indonesia, AP

Former army general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won the first round of Indonesia’s presidential election on Monday, a private poll showed. A runoff election in September appeared certain.

However, it was not immediately clear who Yudhoyono would face in a second round, with President Megawati Sukarnoputri and another ex-army general, Wiranto, locked in a tight race for second place.

“We thank God and the people for this,” Yudhoyono’s campaign manager, Rahmat Witoelar, told Metro TV, a private news station. “We will enter the second round with a vow to do better.” Monday’s vote took place six years after the ouster of longtime dictator Suharto, and was seen a key step in the transition to democracy in the world’s largest Muslim country.

Yudhoyono failed to win the 50 percent of votes needed for an outright victory in Indonesia’s first direct presidential vote, according to the poll by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.

The democratic institute’s poll of votes cast at 2,500 polling stations showed Yudhoyono ahead with 33.9 percent. President Megawati Sukarnoputri was second with 24.9 percent, and another former army general, Wiranto, had 23.8 percent.

The results were based on 63 percent of the total number of votes sampled by the institute, which is the international arm of the U.S. Democratic Party. The poll had a margin of error of 1 percent.

Similar polls by the same organization have accurately predicted results in dozens of elections around the world, including Indonesia’s parliamentary elections in April.

Election officials ordered a recount of a large number of ballots that were declared invalid because voters had accidentally spoiled them by punching the paper when it was folded in two.

Hamid Awaluddin, an election commission member, said the problem could affect “millions” of the total ballot count of 140 million. But he said the process would not significantly delay the count, which could take up to 10 days. “It’s not a major obstacle,” said Hamid Awaluddin, an election commission member. “We can safely say that the elections went well.”

In palm-fringed villages, city slums and in the shadow of mountain ranges, voters across the archipelago poured into more than 500,000 polling stations, many of them shacks made from bamboo and tarpaulin. “This makes me feel like the freedom is real,” said Budi Supriadi, who sells fresh fish in a Jakarta market. “This is a first step toward a better future.”

The national election commission said 3.5 percent of the estimated 140 million votes had been counted by late Monday night. According to those figures, Yudhoyono led with 33 percent; Megawati was second with 27 percent, and Wiranto had 23 percent.

The winner will face a host of challenges: poverty, corruption, an economy that lags behind those elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the threat of terrorism from Islamic militants and separatist insurgencies in the country’s eastern and westernmost regions.

At one polling station in Jakarta, mothers nursing babies and street vendors crowded under a tent to cheer when ballot results were read out by election workers.

More than 80 percent of Indonesia’s 210 million people are Muslim, but few here espouse hardline interpretations of the faith. No candidate campaigned on a pledge to introduce Islamic law, or sharia, in the country.

Neither was terrorism a campaign issue, despite warnings by police that al-Qaida linked Jemaah Islamiyah, the terror group blamed for the deadly 2002 Bali bombings and an attack last year on the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, remains a threat.

The five candidates offered a secular, nationalist vision. They offered few specific policy pledges, but repeated promises to clean up corruption and create jobs.

Yudhoyono’s support rocketed on perceptions he was hardworking and honest. Yudhoyono, who attended officer training in the United States, is also popular with Washington because he is a vocal supporter of the war on terrorism. Wiranto was running for the top job despite being indicted for crimes against humanity over his alleged role in the destruction of East Timor in 1999. He secured the support of the country’s largest political party.

Megawati became the country’s most popular politician in the tumultuous days following the 1998 ouster of Suharto, who had ruled Indonesia since overthrowing her father, Sukarno, in 1966. Her party won more than a third of the vote in free elections in 1999.

But in the past five years, her popularity waned because of her failure to combat corruption or improve the economy, and a perception that she was indifferent to the concerns of the people.

The other presidential candidates were Amien Rais, former head of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organization; and Hamzah Haz, who has served as Megawati’s vice president.