Indonesia Starts Long Poll Campaign as Oil Price Hits President

JAKARTA ~ Indonesia kicked off a mammoth nine-month legislative election campaign at the weekend, with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s ruling coalition under pressure over soaring food and fuel prices.

Indonesia’s election committee (KPU) opened the campaign with restrictions on public rallies and a warning to the 34 eligible parties to avoid the rowdy street protests and cash payments to voters that are common to elections here.

The April election will see the parties vie for places in Indonesia’s 682-member parliament in a prelude to the presidential poll next year, setting the stage for frenzied deal-making in the world’s third-largest democracy.

The reformist Yudhoyono faces a resurgent threat from former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who was trounced by Yudhoyono in the country’s first direct presidential election in 2004.

Recent polls show support for Megawati’s People’s Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) surging, while her position as preferred president has moved ahead of Yudhoyono for the first time since his election.

Anger over a government decision to hike fuel prices by 30 percent in May to cope with the ballooning cost of multibillion-dollar subsidies was pushing voters away from key Yudhoyono supporters, said Muhammad Qodari from polling company Indo Barometer.

The price rise triggered angry protests across the country.

Yudhoyono’s largest coalition partner, Golkar, the former political vehicle of dictator Suharto, has suffered a string of upset defeats in recent provincial elections because of its support for the price rise.

“People will vote for the challenger, in spite of who the challenger is,” Qodari said.

Yudhoyono is also suffering from a voter perception that he has failed in fulfilling his central 2004 campaign pledge to tackle widespread corruption, he said.

“Law enforcement and fighting corruption have been the trademark of Yudhoyono. If people rate this as bad, what else can people support Yudhoyono for?”

The long election campaign will also be a test of support of the Islam-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), whose rise has triggered fears by secularists of a creeping Islamisation in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

The PKS, which has its ideological roots in the hardline Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, says it is uninterested in imposing Syariah law and has positioned itself as a clean alternative to Indonesia’s graft-riddled parties.

Leaders say the party aims to nearly triple its 2004 result to 20 percent in next year’s poll, riding a wave of voter disillusionment to a possible crack at the presidency, or at least a vice presidential berth.

The PKS’s fortunes could be helped along by a steady drip of sleazy scandals from within the established parties.

In the latest such scandal, House of Representatives member Bulyan Royan was arrested this month with almost US$75,000 in alleged bribe money for the procurement of patrol ships for the Transport Ministry.

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