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In a League of his Own

Endy M Bayuni

Watching Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono humiliate his two challengers in the Indonesian presidential elections on Wednesday is probably what watching Manchester United beat the Indonesia All Stars when the English soccer champions come to town later this month will be like: they are really out of his league.

As most exit polls showed, both the outgoing Vice President Jusuf Kalla and former president Megawati Soekarnoputri were nowhere near able to force the election to a runoff. Still we have to give credit to the two challengers for putting up a brave fight until the end and enliven Indonesia's democratic process of electing its leaders.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono- an easy victory.

But realistically, they both knew they were no match for him. They were kidding themselves if they thought they could pull it off. Their best shot was to force the election to a second round by denying a 50 percent-plus victory, but even then, the ensuing challenger, whoever that may be, would likely be thrashed in the second round. By winning it in one round, SBY has actually done them a big favour, sparing them from an even bigger embarrassment.

It would have taken a miracle to beat Yudhoyono given his insurmountable lead in the polls. A severe economic recession that had been widely predicted at the start of the year (remember the expression “we ain't seen the worst yet”?) never came and the corruption scandal involving a senior central bank official who is the father-in-law of Yudho-yono's son worked in his favour when he had sent him to court, resulting in a conviction.

The challengers tried to highlight some of SBY's weaknesses or character flaws, such as his tendency to waver in making important decisions, and also some of the policy failures of the last five years, of which there are quite a few.

In their desperation, they resorted to negative campaigns and used the religious card to attempt to discredit Yudhoyono and Boediono, the former central bank governor and SBY's running mate. Many voters found these methods so distasteful that eventually they worked against the challengers. The harder they pushed him, the stronger he pushed back.

Like in any election anywhere, incumbency helped. Yudhoyono's track record and achievements as President in the last five years are not excellent, but they were good enough for voters to give him a second five-year mandate.

SBY's election victory must really be put down to the fact that he did not face any credible challengers. For all his flaws, he was still far superior to the other two. Megawati came across as a disgruntled has-been who had her chance and who should have known better after her 2004 thrashing by the same man.

Try as he may, Kalla never shook the image as the Number 2, and as powerful and effective as he may have been, he is still seen as a nothing more than SBY's assistant, or “spare tire”. Because both Megawati and Kalla have been in the public limelight, voters knew their strengths and weaknesses enough to be able to compare them with the incumbent.

To the more serious contenders, the nationwide televised presidential debates would have been a golden opportunity to shake Yudhoyono's lead. Instead they served to confirm many people's perception that the incumbent was so far ahead of the other two when it came to communicating with the public.

He may have come across as stiff and tense in these debates, but he spoke with greater clarity and most of all, he mastered the issues much more, sometimes down to the smallest details. In short, he was simply far better prepared than the two contenders.

Appearance mattered to some voters. Yudhoyono's height and broad shoulders makes him seem far more presidential than Megawati or the diminutive, thinly-mustached Kalla. Many Indonesians said they were proud to see an Indonesian leader who would stand shoulder to shoulder next to other world leaders. SBY is their man. Yudhoyono may not have delivered on many of his 2004 election promises or lived up to people's many expectations, but some of the achievements he made in the last five years were significant enough to override the perceived failures.

And probably more importantly, Yudhoyono has been able to launch a much more effective campaign than his challengers did in winning the election.

This election was not a real contest from the beginning. SBY may as well have run as a lone candidate, very much like the dictator Soeharto did between 1971 and 1998, except that in those days, no one would dare to challenge him.

If there is one lesson from 2009 to take, it is that we need separate the boys from the men in the election and ensure a much more level playing field in 2014. Democracy will be served much better this way.

This article was first published in The Jakarta Post


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