Spectre of Militarism as Suharto Generals Join the Battle for Indonesian Presidency

Article excerpt

IT IS midnight at an open-air restaurant in Jakarta, and Wiranto, Indonesia's former military commander, is addressing a rapt crowd on the myriad problems facing the nation. Suddenly he changes tack. "Let's sing together," says the would-be president. Cradling a microphone, he leads his adoring fans in a rendition of a 1970s hit, "Goodbye My Love".

The following evening, Mr Wiranto takes part in a live television debate with rival candidates seeking the presidency in Monday's election. One panelist asks him whether people convicted of gross human rights violations should face the death penalty. With a face like thunder, he replies in the affirmative.

Pop star, poster boy and indicted war criminal: this is the man who aspires to the highest political office of the world's most populous Muslim nation. A United Nations-backed tribunal has charged him with responsibility for mass murder in East Timor in 1999.

Many blame him for the deaths of protesters in Jakarta riots that brought down the dictator, Suharto, in 1998.

But it is not Mr Wiranto's human rights record that seems likely to deprive him of the leadership of this turbulent, sprawling archipelago of 220 million people. It is the spectacular level of support for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, another Suharto-era general, whose popularity has confounded political observers.

Mr Yudhoyono - or SBY, as he is known - is backed by 35.8 per cent of voters, according to the latest poll. Mr Wiranto is trailing on 16.5 per cent. But while pundits marvel at the SBY phenomenon, the battle of the generals has sparked distinct unease in a country that rid itself of a military dictatorship just six years ago.

Mr Yudhoyono is not as controversial a figure as Mr Wiranto. But he too is tainted by his close association with the Suharto regime and its brutal military abuses. In a nation where democracy is still fragile, many fear a return of the bad old days of authoritarianism.

On Thursday a convoy of battered vans toured Jakarta's traffic- snarled streets, plastered with banners declaring: "Say no to militarism." Over crackling loudspeakers, their occupants shouted: "People need a president, not a commander." Some of the students who organised the convoy took part in the demonstrations that ousted Suharto after 32 years of iron- fisted rule. …