Runoff election a new test for Indonesia

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Agencies

Indonesia’s fledgling democracy faces a new test ahead of a runoff presidential vote in September, with incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri and her former security minister expected to woo rival factions in a climate of political uncertainty.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former army general who quit Megawati’s Cabinet to run for president, won the first round of Indonesia’s presidential election on Monday with 33.9 percent of the vote, according to a poll by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.

The poll said Megawati followed with 26 percent and former armed forces chief Wiranto trailed in third place with 23 percent. The institute, which counted half a million votes from 2,500 selected voting stations, has accurately predicted results in dozens of elections around the world.

The election — the first time Indonesians voted directly for president — was praised by the European Union and other monitors as a smooth, peaceful process. The strong turnout of about 81 percent, they said, showed that Indonesia’s 140 million voters have embraced democracy six years after the fall of President Suharto and his 32-year dictatorship.

Indonesian share prices and the rupiah surged Tuesday after the peaceful vote and the prospect of seeing two finalists with strong international support and similar visions for the country. Both are secular nationalists, and Yudhoyono’s firm stance on terrorism and reputation for honesty has won him praise abroad.

“This is exciting,” said Paul Rowland of the National Democratic Institute. “A year ago, everybody thought this was a lock for Megawati. Two weeks ago, everyone thought it was a lock for Yudhoyono.”

The absence of a clear winner, however, raises the possibility of political uncertainty, at least in the short term, in a country that has endured repeated turbulence since 1998 — three presidents in six years, sectarian and separatist violence and terror attacks by Islamic militants that have claimed 214 lives, many of them foreign tourists.

Last month, Yudhoyono warned that rival supporters could clash if there is a runoff and some supporters reiterated the warning on Tuesday. However, threats of widespread violence — always a fear in previous years — are unlikely.

With the runoff election looming, there are unlikely to be big changes in government policy, especially in the state’s long battle against separatist guerrillas in Aceh province or efforts to jump start the sputtering economy.

Instead, candidates are expected to focus on shoring up support and drawing voters from other camps ahead of the Sept. 20 race.