APSN Banner

Rulers Spoil Suspense for Voters in Indonesia

New York Times - April 20, 1997

Seth Mydans, Jakarta – Parliamentary elections will not be held in Indonesia until the end of May, but the governing party has already announced its winning total: 70.02 percent of the vote.

In what will probably be the last election to endorse the long leadership of President Suharto, nothing is being left to chance. An outbreak of religion-based riots over recent months has dramatized an undercurrent of discontent in Indonesia and heightened the determination of the authorities to control every aspect of political life.

Opposition parties have been put under pressure. Lists of candidates have been vetted. Stringent new campaign rules have severely restricted the sites and the content of rallies and speeches. And after the worst riot in decades in Jakarta last July, a series of arrests, interrogations and trials has sought to neutralize the most outspoken dissidents.

(On Tuesday as many as 5,000 supporters of the opposition politician Megawati Sukarnoputri staged a noisy six-hour rally outside the Parliament building, where they tore down a large iron gate, The Associated Press reported. Helicopters hovered overhead and hundreds of soldiers and police officers kept the demonstrators from entering the building, but both sides held back from a confrontation and the rally ended peacefully.)

The national temperature has risen in advance of the election, in the world's fourth-most-populous country, as a host of grievances rise to the surface. Though Suharto, 75, seems determined to stay on for another term, his thorough planning for the campaign has not been matched by plans for the long-term future. No system for an orderly transition of power has been put in place.

And while he has engineered a sharp rise in living standards in this nation of 200 million people, he has not allowed a comparable evolution of Indonesia's institutions to accommodate the demands of an increasingly aware electorate.

Many analysts say the recent riots reflect the unresponsiveness of the police, the courts and the governing Golkar party to complaints about corruption, unemployment, government abuses and growing disparities in wealth.

"There are outlets for the grievances, but the fact is these outlets cannot be considered as truly representing the increasing awareness of rights," said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a political scientist.

"Maybe the political system was adequate to deal with the country's problems from the mid-'60s to the mid-'80s," she said. "But development itself has brought new problems. There is a new middle class. People are more educated. With globalization there is the increasing intrusion of the outside world."

With the coming elections thoroughly choreographed, the government's main worry now is something called "golput," which means "white group," as opposed to the red, yellow and green of Indonesia's three officially sanctioned political parties. (The governing party's name, Golkar, is an abbreviation of Golongan Karya, or "Functional Group.")

"Golput" is the popular new name for a boycott – virtually the only way left for voters to register their frustration with the government – and Indonesia's leaders are taking it very seriously.

"To choose not to vote is their right, but if they urge others to follow suit, punitive measures await them," Suharto said.

The authorities have arrested Sri Bintang Pamungkas, a dissident former legislator who had sent out greeting cards calling for an election boycott. He was charged with subversion, a crime that carries the death penalty.

But the idea seems to be catching on. Newspaper headlines report the authorities' vigorous pursuit of underground activists who distribute pro-boycott leaflets. A recent poll suggested that large numbers of young people were prepared to "vote golput."

"Golput is like a fourth contesting party," wrote the newspaper Media Indonesia.

The spread of the idea of a boycott is a measure of the country's political restlessness, an Asian diplomat said.

"People want more openness," the diplomat said. "They want more room. They want the government to be more responsive to their needs."

On May 29, voters are to choose 425 legislators, who will join 75 military representatives and 500 others selected by the government in a People's Consultative Assembly that will elect the next president, in 1998.

The governing party's announcement that it will win 70.02 percent of the vote offered a figure two percentage points above its score five years ago.

"It's not a prediction based on nothing," said a party official, Abdullah Alatas Fahmi, "It's a scientific calculation."

Preparations have been under way for months make sure everything goes smoothly.

Last year, when Mrs. Megawati, leader of one of the three sanctioned parties, seemed to be growing too popular and assertive, the government engineered a change in her party's leadership.

Although Mrs. Megawati – the daughter of Indonesia's founder, Sukarno – had never said she sought to challenge Suharto, she developed a fiercely loyal following. Her party is now split and feuding to the point of impotence.

Indeed, most of the boycott sentiment probably comes from angry Megawati supporters who feel they have been disenfranchised, said Hari Tjan, a political scientist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent research organization.

The party split was the catalyst for the rioting in Jakarta, which took at least five lives. The riot erupted when the military forcibly evicted Mrs. Megawati's supporters from the party headquarters in central Jakarta.

The government has kept Mrs. Megawati busy since then with a series of interrogations about the riot and her party's activities. In addition, some of the country's most outspoken critics, including labor leaders and student activists, have been arrested.

At the same time, the new election ground rules are the most stringent since Suharto took power in 1968.

During the 25-day campaign the large outdoor rallies and motorcades that made a festival of past elections will be banned. Lists of campaign speakers are to be submitted for government approval and texts of radio and television speeches are to be reviewed in advance.

Suharto explained the tight election controls in a speech in January. "What we have to avoid is an uncontrolled situation, clashes and animosity among ourselves," he said. "This certainly is unhealthy and even endangers our nation."

He acknowledged the social inequalities and discontent that have accompanied Indonesia's rapid growth, but said his critics could provoke conflict by "continuing to blow up the gaps and poverty without offering any realistic concept for solving them."

"A general election campaign that causes damage – both physical and to people's prosperity – must be avoided," he said.

Among the 2,285 candidates in the election will be seven of Suharto's relatives – all members of his Golkar party – including four of his six children, a daughter-in-law, a cousin and a half-brother, along with relatives of several ministers and high-ranking military officers.

But Mrs. Megawati – currently a member of Parliament – will not be running. After her ouster as party chief and the split in her party, neither she nor any members of her faction of the party were approved by the authorities as candidates.