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Indonesia as a Beacon

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In just six short years since the dictator Suharto was ousted, the world's fifth most populous nation has seen three presidents, three major terrorist bombings by a group linked to Al Qaeda, three separatist uprisings, a 40 percent unemployment rate, and rampant corruption.

But this week nothing but cheers went up as Indonesia, the giant archipelago nation of Southeast Asia, conducted its first direct election of a president.

Monday's election left its people full of hope and sets an example of full-throated democracy for the region - as well as for the world's other Muslim countries itching for civil liberties.

With most of the votes counted, the projected winner with an estimated 86 percent is a former general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He won despite efforts by Indonesia's entrenched political parties and incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri to defeat him.

He showed that Indonesians are ready to reject the political elite who try to manipulate their votes but who also have mismanaged the economy. And General Yudhoyono did so with a party formed just last April and which holds only 10 percent of seats in parliament.

His appeal lies in his dynamic character, his record as a security chief under President Megawati, and his promise to tackle graft.

Indonesia is identified as one of the world's most corrupt countries by the watchdog group Transparency International. Widespread graft is a main reason Indonesia has faltered in taking more of a leadership role in Asia, despite ample resources and 220 million people.

Yudhoyono, who has an American management degree as well as military training in the US, plans tough enforcement of anti-corruption laws as well as streamlining of regulations that are often an inducement for bribes. If he succeeds, that should bring back much of the foreign investment Indonesia lost after the 1997 Asia financial crisis.

Much of the credit for this peaceful transition to full democracy goes to Megawati. Daughter of Indonesia's founder, her term was marked by lack of direction, but she helped stabilize the country during the post-Suharto era. She can help now by having her party support Yudhoyono's reforms.

Yudhoyono's second biggest challenge, after corruption, will be creating a vibrant economy that creates enough jobs and wealth to further stabilize democracy. That would be the best antidote to ending the Islamic terrorism that still worries Indonesians.

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