Bambang's peaceful victory.

What the foreign papers are saying.
Sept. 23 2004 4:12 PM

Bambang's Peaceful Victory

Indonesians elect their first president.

For the first time, Indonesians have been able to vote directly for their new president, and it's Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono by a landslide. The last votes are still being counted from the nation's 150 million registered voters (scattered across 14,000 islands), but at 61 percent to 39 percent, Yudhoyono, a general who stepped down as Indonesia's security chief to run for office, has soundly trounced the incumbent president, Megawati Sukarnoputri. The result is being hailed as a victory for democracy in the world's largest Muslim country, where sectarian violence and terror attacks continue to hamper progress.

Megawati has refused to officially concede the race but did apologize on Thursday for "all those shortcomings, all the things we haven't finished." Yudhoyono is waiting to celebrate victory until his opponent's concession, and so Indonesian papers have focused mostly on the success of the election itself. The presidential vote was the third national election this calendar year, as Indonesians voted in hundreds of officials at all levels of government. While the local press was happy to see Megawati go, it praised her for allowing democracy to move forward. Jakarta-based Media Indonesia called it "Megawati's golden work," and Surabaya's Jawa Pos told countrymen "we should all be proud" (translations courtesy BBC monitoring). The Jakarta Suara Pembaruan took it further, saying that "this election was truly a victory for the little people" (translation courtesy of the Guardian).

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Most observers marveled at the fact that Yudhoyono, widely described as a dark horse candidate a few months ago, managed to pull off the election. The editor of the Jakarta Post argued in an editorial that he won because everyone hates Megawati. "One of the chief lessons we take away from Monday's election is that our political elite, as represented by the mighty Nationhood Coalition, is completely out of touch with reality at the grassroots level." A more vicious editorial in the same paper (now only available via this Google cache) suggested that Yudhoyono is just plain smarter. An election debate panel "showed in an embarrassing manner, that Megawati simply could not fathom the questions posed to her," while "Yudhoyono displayed an impressive intellectual aptitude by presenting coherent statements on a wide range of issues."

A Guardian report on the election also noted Megawati's campaign problems: "Ms Megawati was viewed as being aloof and surrounded by many untrustworthy politicians, despite a campaign to alter her image." The article went on to note that the election was unpredictable because of the rapid pace of change. "[M]uch of the rest of the political landscape is also new. There is a new upper legislature and some 60% of the newly-elected MPs in the lower house are entering parliament for the first time." As an editorial in the Korea Herald noted, "The election was thus a contest of personality and image rather than of policies."

An editorial in the Australian reviewed some of the challenges facing Yudhoyono during the country's "year of voting incessantly." According to that paper, "Indonesia has lapsed into the condition that used to be known as Third World" because corruption has placed the country "in the too-hard basket" for international investors. In addition, the recent bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta underscores the country's long-standing problem with Islamic extremists, which Yudhoyono already faced as Megawati's security czar. The International Herald Tribune took a long look at Yudhoyono's chances, hoping that his wide margin of victory won't go to his head as a "surplus of power." It suggested that Indonesians decided he would not "revert to the old style of his mentor," Gen. Suharto, who ruled Indonesia as a military strongman from 1967 to 1998.

Ed Finn is the director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English at Arizona State University.

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