Champion of 'little people' idolised by poor

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 July, 2004, 12:00am

The working class abandon Megawati and build shrines to the man they call 'SBY'

In Jakarta's working-class suburbs there are shrines to him. Images of his grinning face beam from T-shirts, flags and posters hanging near the food stalls. Indonesia's presidential favourite, former chief security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or SBY to his supporters, has an enormous fan club.

On a street corner in the Benhill district of the city, there is even the 'SBY Motorcycle Taxi Stand'.

Motorcycle taxi-driver Sumano, 44, and 87 other riders decided to rename their taxi stand in honour of their political hero just before legislative elections were held in April.

Like many of Mr Susilo's grassroots supporters, Mr Sumano was once a fan of President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

'Mega, before I liked her. Now? No. Because after she got there, she forgot the people down below,' he said.

'But, SBY, hopefully - this is just a hope - he will be good for the little people. If he's not in five years we'll change him,' he said, breaking into a smile.

Frustrated with rising fuel prices, electricity and telephone rates, many of the little people or wong cilik are abandoning Ms Megawati in droves.

'People have been practically screaming for change,' said Jeffrey Winters, an Indonesian specialist from Chicago's Northwestern University, who is in Indonesia following the campaign.

The little people's search for a new political saviour, is a factor on which Mr Susilo has been quick to capitalise, as his political strategist Rachmat Witoelar admits.

'The supporters of Megawati they are not real supporters, they are emotional supporters; of her charisma, of the wish to make a difference. Mega was a difference; now he [SBY] makes a difference,' he said.

But most importantly, analysts say Mr Susilo appears to have the gravitas Ms Megawati lacks.

After six years of riots, sectarian, ethnic and separatist conflicts from Papua to Aceh, his cool-headed image is winning him the support of the middle class, who want more than just charisma and good looks.

'What comes through is a steady cool head under pressure. A number of times he has been in the national spotlight and he could have reacted angrily but he didn't - he handled himself in a cool, statesman like way,' said Professor Winters.

Mr Susilo won points for getting tough with Acehnese separatists when the government abandoned peace talks and launched a military operation last May.