Formal campaigning for Indonesia’s July 8 presidential election began on Thursday with incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono seemingly on track for a resounding victory thanks to the country’s robust economy, his clean image and the lack of a credible challenger.
Most polls put the former general on at least 60 per cent support, with his predecessor, Megawati Sukarnoputri, in the upper teens and Jusuf Kalla, the vice president and third contender, in single digits. About 15 per cent of the 176m voters remain undecided.
Victory is secured by winning more than 50 per cent of the total votes and at least 20 per cent of the vote in half the 33 provinces. If no one fulfils the criteria the top two candidates will compete in a September run-off.
Kevin Evans, a Jakarta-based analyst, believes: the worry for Mr Yudhoyono “is that everyone thinks he is going to win and so his supporters stay at home”.
This complacency could stem from Megawati’s limited appeal, said Mr Evans. “They might be nostalgic for the past but they don’t vote for it. However, Mr Yudhoyono does need to keep his base energised.”
Mr Yudhoyono’s popularity was demonstrated in April when his Democrat Party won 26 per cent of the seats in the legislative election, almost a third more than any other party. Polls have consistently shown that he is much more popular than his party.
Sound management of south-east Asia's largest economy is considered the key to his success. Indonesia’s economy grew 4.4 per cent in the first quarter of 2009, year on year, thanks to resilient domestic demand, strong commodity prices and relatively low unemployment.
Moody’s rating agency on Thursday upgraded its outlook for Indonesia’s Ba3 sovereign rating to positive from stable.
"The improvement in the outlook was prompted by Indonesia's relatively strong growth prospects, and an increasingly effective macro-economic policy framework," says Aninda Mitra, a Moody’s vice president. "Indonesia's overall growth dynamic is steadier and better positioned than many Ba-rated peers, as well as most other regional economies."
Mr Yudhoyono’s “successful” image was bolstered on Wednesday when he inaugurated the longest bridge in south-east Asia, between East Java and Madura island. However, the positive spin on the event belied the fact that the president’s main weak points had been his failure to modernise the country’s crumbling infrastructure.
Sunny Tanuwidjaja, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, said Mr Kalla and Mrs Megawati face an unenviable challenge.
“If they try to campaign positively they’ll lose because you can’t be more positive than SBY’s record,” he said, using the president’s nickname. “And if they choose to go negative they risk alienating voters, who generally don’t like such methods.”
Puan Maharani, Mrs Megawati’s daughter and a newly-elected parliamentarian, seems almost resigned to defeat. “We have to be optimistic, we have to believe we can win,” she told the Financial Times, with little conviction.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation but religion does not appear to be a factor in the election because all the candidates and their running mates are secular politicians and the Islamist vote is split.
The running mates of Mr Yudhoyono’s main rivals, Mrs Megawati and Mr Kalla, are former generals Prabowo Subianto and Wiranto respectively - both of whom have dubious human rights records.