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Protestants given right to vote freely

South China Morning Post - April 21, 1997

Jenny Grant, Jakarta – Two of the nation's largest Christian organisations have made statements backing the right of their congregations to vote freely in the May 29 general elections.

The Indonesian Communion of Churches, representing 10 million Protestants and 70 churches, has released a 29-page document which states that voters have total freedom to choose which of the three parties to vote for. The ruling Golkar, the Indonesian Democracy Party and the Muslim-backed United Development Party will compete for 425 seats.

"The public, as keeper of the country's sovereignty, needs to understand that voters must use their voting rights with all their heart and all their responsibility," says the document, circulated on March 27.

It does not endorse blank voting, but neither does it rule out the practice - which the Government is desperately trying to stamp out.

Talk of a poll boycott is gaining popularity among students and pro-democracy activists.

Golkar's chairman, Information Minister Harmoko, condemned a boycott as "cowardly and irresponsible".

Blank voting is not illegal in Indonesia - but urging others to blank vote is against the law.

"We encourage our congregation to go to the general elections and exercise their right to choose," said Reverend Joseph Marcus Pattiasina, the secretary-general of the Protestant group. "But how they vote depends on them."

Mr Pattiasina said Protestants would keep a strict eye on campaigning and voting procedures. But he said this was not an official monitoring role.

"We will check if there is any pressure [on voters]. I have written to all churches to collect data on these incidents and if there are violations we will report them."

In February, Indonesia's top Catholic body, the Bishop's Council of Indonesia, distributed an election statement to all parishes.

The statement, signed by council chairman Cardinal Julius Darmaatmaja, said it was not a sin for Catholics to choose not to vote if they could not find a suitable candidate. Catholics make up around 3.5 per cent of Indonesia's 200 million people.

Most Muslim leaders have urged their followers not to join the growing calls for a boycott.

But the anti-Golkar themes in the sermons of some local preachers in Central Java are said to have stirred up rioting between followers of the United Development Party and Golkar. Around 90 per cent of the population follows Islam. Meanwhile, the leader of the 30 million-member Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, Abdurrahman Wahid, has formed an alliance with Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, the deputy chairman of Golkar and the eldest daughter of President Suharto.