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Volatile democracy

In the last year or so, mention of Indonesia in Australia generally arouses images of hardline Muslims involved in regional terrorism. It may be interesting to take another look, especially as Indonesia is making further inroads toward democracy this year, with a parliamentary election and a presidential election.
Until 1999, elections in Indonesia had been a big yawn, because of their glaring predictability. After 32 years of Suharto’s iron rule, Indonesia’s first democratic election in 1999 was marked by euphoria, optimism and promise of massive reform.

Five years on, and much disappointment later, Indonesia faces an even tougher test. Not only were the results of the April parliamentary election full of surprises, the first direct presidential election to be conducted on 5 July, promises unprecedented suspense.

Many observers were caught by surprise with the results of the parliamentary election. While they had expected a reduction of support for incumbent president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s party, PDIP, very few had predicted the extent to which people abandoned it. The votes the party received plummeted to 18.5 per cent, from 34 per cent in the 1999 election, the largest number of votes won by any individual party at that time.

Voters expressed their disappointment in the current government, who they believe failed to deliver promised reform, and had brought the country’s economy into disarray.

It was expected that in spite of rowdy protests and demonstrations against the government, that voters would ultimately support it, the rationale being the clichéd, ‘better the devil you know’.

It is possible that the successive and easy victories of Suharto and his Golkar Party during 32 years, in retrospect, may not be entirely attributed to the government’s bullying tactics. There must have been a degree of acquiescence, if not inertia, on the part of the majority of the people.

The chances for success for new parties therefore, are usually abysmal, unless they have ready-made support, such as Amien Rais’ PAN in 1999, which drew much strength from Muhammadiyah, the second biggest Muslim organisation in the country.

For this reason the emergence in the April 2004 election of two new parties with little previous record and no apparent existing support base, is phenomenal.

The Democratic Party, co-founded by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, former Minister for Security and Defence, won 7.5 per cent, and the Prosperous Justice Party, a party evolved from a basically small fundamentalist Muslim party, Justice Party, 7.3 per cent.

The Democratic Party was effectively founded in 2001 to serve as Yudhoyono’s political stead, because Indonesia’s electoral law specifies that only political parties can nominate presidential candidates. Even on the eve of the April election people were still speculating that the Democratic Party might not receive the minimum electoral support required by law, (three per cent), in order to nominate a presidential candidate. However Yudhoyono’s supporters were not too worried, because they were sure that their candidate would be ‘adopted’ by one of the major parties, who would undoubtedly recognise what an asset he had become.
To their delight, the Democratic Party won 7.5 per cent of the vote and became one of the big seven which won 41 per cent of the vote in total. The remaining votes were distributed among 17 smaller parties, few of which won more than three per cent of the vote in their own right.

The surprise effected by the Prosperous Justice Party was not as strong as that of the Democratic Party. Those disillusioned by PAN, which started off as a party which embraced Muslim intellectuals and moderates, but evolved into a watered-down and vague political entity, found a natural home in the new Prosperous Justice Party.

Golkar attracted the highest proportion of votes at 21.6 per cent. This figure is only slightly lower than that of the 1999 election. Instead of losing support like PDIP, Golkar has consolidated its force.

Another major surprise for observers in Indonesia was the nomination of Wiranto by Golkar as its presidential candidate at their convention in late April. Most people had expected Akbar Tandjung, the party President and Speaker of the Lower House, to be nominated. Admittedly Tandjung’s name was somewhat tainted when he was convicted of corruption last year, though the conviction was later overturned by the appeals court. On the other hand, Wiranto has been charged by a UN-backed tribunal in East Timor, with having ultimate responsibility for murder, deportation and persecution ‘committed in the context of widespread and systematic attacks on the civilian population’ during East Timor’s transition to independence from Indonesia in 1999.

After its defeat in the 1999 election, where PDIP amassed nearly 34 per cent of the votes, Golkar has undoubtedly regrouped. In fact, Golkar does not appear to have really lost its support in the outer islands, especially in Sulawesi.

Against this background, the significant disillusionment against Megawati’s government has worked in Golkar’s favour. The only other government in the collective memory of the country’s population is that of Golkar. And when people are uncertain where the next meal will come from or when it will come, greater political freedom is cold comfort. The memory of Golkar’s regimented government suddenly looks a lot more attractive, especially when its excesses no longer loom large in its country’s consciousness.

Golkar may have been draconian, corrupt and nepotistic, but people remember that at least they had regular meals, clothes to wear and somewhere to sleep.

A noted scholar and political observer once likened the country to a milking cow. During Suharto’s rule, a small elite milked it and fed it. Under Megawati, the cow is milked by everybody and nobody bothers to feed it.

It is also worth noting that the present Golkar is different to that of Suharto. It is aware of a changed atmosphere, where there is a solid, albeit small, body of social and media monitors who are not reluctant in exposing any wrongdoings or injustices committed by those in power.

It appears that Golkar is bothered more by the fact Akbar Tandjung had been convicted of corruption than by charges of human rights violations against Wiranto. The anti-corruption drive is one of the three major issues with which Indonesians are currently concerned, the others being improvements to education and reviving the economy. Even Wiranto’s staunchest rival, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, declared clean governance his priority if elected.

Waves of protests against the ‘return of militarism’ in Indonesia rise and fall in big cities, especially in Java. Though both Wiranto and Yudhoyono are retired, the protests appear directed at Wiranto, as Yudhoyono is seen as a ‘reformist’ among the military.

To most intellectuals and many in the political elite, Wiranto is a political embarrassment, because of his alleged actions in East Timor. However people are gradually resigning themselves to the fact that he may indeed win the presidential contest. The concern that this may alienate Indonesia from the West quickly faded when the US indicated that if Wiranto were elected they would work with him. If the pattern of the last eight years were to be used as a barometer, this suggests that Australia would not protest too much either. Then on 11 May, East Timor’s Prosecutor General, Longuihos Monteiro, asked the UN-backed Judge Phillip Rapoza to review an arrest warrant against Wiranto which Rapoza had issued on 10 May. Rapoza subsequently rejected the bid. It has become clear that even East Timor is thinking of softening its blows. All this has not been lost on observers in Indonesia.

Advocates of human rights in Indonesia have yet to ‘naturalise’ the concept. For those who live below the poverty line, bullied each day by local thugs while law enforcers turn a blind eye, the notion of human rights is unfortunately too abstract. Hearing that a former general, whose looks and public speeches do not invoke fear in them, is involved in human rights violations, only invokes disbelief. This is especially so when the alleged crimes were committed in a remote place; and as far as many people are concerned, if they do not see the act themselves or hear from someone close to them, it remains hearsay.

Even some of the more educated have problems with the issue. Their objection lies in the selectivity of the international concern. If the world is so concerned about human rights, how come they are only outraged about violations in East Timor and West Papua? What about what is happening within Indonesia? It is not hard to see how easy it is to insinuate that the West’s preferential concern is influenced by the dominance of Christianity in East Timor and West Papua.

Five presidential candidates and their respective running mates are now registered for the July election. The strongest are Yudhoyono, Wiranto and the incumbent president Megawati. In the case of no clear majority, a second round of elections will be held on 20 September.

Direct presidential elections are entirely new in Indonesia, and it is no secret that it is causing a great deal of confusion on the part of the voting public. Much horse-trading has been evident among the political elite. However with international monitors present and the relentless media observation, it is less easy to sustain accusations of vote-rigging and electoral irregularities. At best, those who do not like the elected president can say that the voting public are yet to be properly educated. 

Dewi Anggraeni is the Australian correspondent for Tempo news magazine, and regular contributor to The Jakarta Post.



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