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SBY eyes historic re-election

As the July polls approach, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono appears poised to be the first democratically-elected president to win re-election. The challengers’ tickets are marred by alleged rights abusers. In another step forward for democracy, the campaign will feature presidential debates. Volkswagen to make minivans in Indonesia. Facebook prompts a morality debate, and a paper company is accused of killing Orangutans.


Top News: Indonesia’s presidential candidates are almost halfway through the country’s wonderfully short two month campaign period. (If only presidential elections in the United States were this brisk.)


As in the parliamentary elections, the Democratic Party, headed by incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is expected to win easily. So confident is the reform-minded former general that he chose an independent as his running mate. Boediono, a respected economist credited with reforming the country’s central bank, will round out the ticket, much to the chagrin of the dozen or so smaller parties that have signed on to support Yudhoyono’s run.


The PKS, the country’s largest Islamic political party and one Yudhoyono’s main backers, was especially shocked by the choice and threatened to pull out of the coalition. They quickly relented. Most analysts, however, have praised the president for his choice.


Yudhoyono’s competitors will be the usual old-guard faces from the days of Suharto. Megawati Sukarnoputri, who Yudhoyono defeated five years ago, will run with controversial ex-general Prabowo Subianto, who stands accused of numerous human rights violations. Current vice president Yusuf Kalla, leader of the Suharto-era political vehicle Golkar, has partnered with Wiranto, another controversial ex-general thought to be behind abuses in East Timor. With so much baggage, neither ticket poses much of a threat to the incumbent. So Yudhoyono, who is the country’s first directly elected president, looks poised to now become the country’s first directly re-elected president.


For the first time in Indonesia’s history, the candidates will face off in a series of televised debates in June. Indonesian elections have often been criticized for their reliance on personalities rather than agendas. The electoral commission hopes the debates will encourage the electorate, some 170 million people, to focus on the issues.


The defense budget will likely come up during the debates. It has been repeatedly slashed by Yudhoyono who sees few external threats and who made reforming the military a priority in his first five years. But after a 30-year-old military transport plane crashed in East Java on May 21, killing all 101 people on board and several more on the ground, calls are mounting to inject more cash into the ageing air force fleet.


Indonesia has been struck by a string of air disaster over the last five years, mostly among commercial airlines. Poor safety standards and ageing aircraft were largely to blame. The European Union has banned all Indonesian carries from its airspace. There hasn’t been a major commercial crash in the last year but several military planes have gone down, including one on April 5 that killed 24 people just outside of Jakarta.


Money: In choosing Boediono as his running mate, Yudhoyono left a big hole to fill at Bank Indonesia. Boediono had made major strides in cleaning up the Bank, which had long been beset by corruption. Analysts feared a less dedicated governor could roll back progress already made. Those fears were allayed earlier this month, however, when parliament agreed to appoint Darmin Nasution as the new Bank Indonesia governor. Nasution is credited with reforming the national tax office in his former post and is sure to carry forward reforms at the central bank.


Yudhoyono’s choice of Boediono demonstrates how seriously the president considers the economy as a top issue. The pair has already begun to lay out an economic platform for the years ahead. Yudhoyono announced May 23 that, if elected, the country would see 7 percent growth by the end of his second term in 2014.


The prediction was a bit more conservative than that of his presidential rivals, who envisioned growth as high as 9 percent. The country last posted 7 percent growth in 1996, before the 1998 financial crisis that led to the ouster of Suharto. Last year, Indonesia grew by 6.1 percent. Yudhoyono said his economic plan would be “pro-growth, pro-jobs and pro-poor.”


The country celebrated the decision by Volkswagen to begin its Southeast Asia expansion in Indonesia. Europe’s largest carmaker struck a deal to assemble compact minivans in Indonesia beginning next year, its first Asia venture outside of China. Volkswagen will team up with the country’s largest auto company, Indomobil Group. Full-scale manufacturing would not begin until 2012, the company said, but initial capacity would employ up to 4,000 people.


Elsewhere: The country briefly dizzied itself last week with a debate on the morality of Facebook. A group of conservative clerics recommended a ban against the popular social networking site because it could encourage infidelity and adultery. Indonesia, however, is ranked fourth in the world in numbers of Facebook users, among which are scores of influential Islamic clerics. The group backed down after a popular backlash and ridicule in the local press. They now say it is OK to use Facebook, as long as it isn’t for the purposes of flirtation. Oh, and same goes for mobile phones, the clerics added.


The fall of Indonesia’s animal kingdom continues to be a hot topic. The latest depressing report comes from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which has accused one of the country’s largest paper companies of bringing about the shocking decline of the orangutan’s natural habitat, further threatening the majestic ape with extinction.