Not long ago, it seemed that Golkar, the party of former military strongman Suharto, was in a prime position to take back the presidency of Indonesia. After all, Golkar won 22% of the vote in April parliamentary elections, more than any other party. Its political machine is second to none. And Indonesians, fed up with the violence and economic uncertainty of the past six years, are eager for a return to the order, stability, and growth they associate with the Suharto era -- which voters in April made clear they don't believe incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri can deliver. So when Golkar named Wiranto -- a retired general with a crooner's voice and movie-star looks -- as its candidate for the July 5 presidential election, he looked like the man to beat.
But that assessment underestimates the appeal of another retired Suharto-era general, Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He has the same law-and-order image as Wiranto but with fewer ties to Suharto-era misdeeds. Although Yudhoyono's party took only 7.5% of the parliamentary vote, Yudhoyono himself is topping the opinion polls. In April, 30.6% of Indonesians said Yudhoyono was their choice for President, up from 9.1% in January, according to a survey by the Washington-based International Foundation for Election Systems. Megawati trailed with 14.6%, while Wiranto appealed to just 2%.
It's Yudhoyono's firm but politically correct image that's scoring points. He hails from a respectable military family. He has never been publicly accused of corruption. He says he had no hand in the anti-Chinese riots of May, 1998, or the slaughter of more than 1,500 civilians in East Timor in August, 1999 -- atrocities that have been laid at the army's feet. And many credit Yudhoyono with limiting the role of the military in politics. He even set an example by resigning from the army to serve as Mines & Energy Minister.
Yudhoyono, though, is no pushover. In 2001 he signed on as Megawati's Coordinating Minister for Defense & Security -- in effect, Indonesia's top cop. Although he allowed increased dissent -- opposition politicians and labor groups could organize peacefully -- he also directed a campaign against separatists in outlying provinces and led the hunt for al Qaeda-linked terrorists blamed for bombing a nightclub in Bali in 2002 and the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta in 2003. Now Yudhoyono is promising a restoration of law and order across the board, from the sanctity of foreign investors' contracts to further crackdowns on terrorists. "We are emphasizing security in the broadest sense of the word," says Subur Budhisantoso, president of Yudhoyono's Democrat Party. "Only then can people generate more economic activity."
Still, the race is far from over. In coming months, Golkar is expected to flood the country with pro-Wiranto cadres. And Wiranto is not expected to be harmed by a recent indictment and arrest warrant from a U.N.-backed tribunal blaming him for the killings in East Timor, which few Indonesians blame on the army. Wiranto's spokesman declined to comment.
What's more, if no candidate garners a majority of the votes in July, there will be a runoff on Sept. 20 between the top two. "I expect plenty of surprises along the way," says Lex Rieffel, an Indonesia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. In the shadow play of Javanese politics, the unpredictable is often the norm.
By Michael Shari in New York, with Assif Shameen in Singapore