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Suharto's party won big, some say too big

Asiaweek - June 13, 1997

Keith Loveard, Jakarta – The outcome of an Indonesian election is supposed to be predictable and, in that regard, the May 29 parliamentary polls did not disappoint. Golkar, the long-ruling party backed by President Suharto, the military and big business, always wins. Only the margin of its victory varies a bit. Support slipped to 68% of the vote in 1992, and this time officials were determined to secure a very calculated 70.02%. They did, and then some. It is that some (4.2%) extra that is causing them trouble now.

For the first time ever, the government has acknowledged election breaches on the island of Madura, where support for the Islam-based United Development Party (PPP) is strong. Mobs trashed government buildings and officials' homes after authorities took ballot boxes to government offices instead of counting them on the spot. A new vote was held in 86 locations, under tight security, June 4. But the PPP did not participate in the second round of polls, which officials claimed should be held throughout a key district instead of in just a few villages. Elsewhere, the PPP also called for a re-vote.

The chairman of Golkar, Harmoko, has dismissed the problems in Madura as small blots on an otherwise clean record. "Look at all 305,000 polling stations. On the whole we believe the election went well." An independent monitoring commission, known as KIPP, believes the voting may have gone just a little too well for the results to be entirely credible. "There are indications that there has been systematic violation of the rules," said KIPP chairman Gunawan Mohamad. "The election was organized by the bureaucracy, and officials were forced to produce a significant result for Golkar."

Local officials were certainly well-briefed on Golkar's goals. Some may have been a bit more enthusiastic about their duties than Jakarta would have wished. "Golkar officials are looking for face by seeking even more than the grouping's target," says University of Indonesia political scientist Arbi Sanit. They may have been worried too. During the campaign season the rumblings of discontent were louder, and more violent, than in any other election in the past 25 years. Indonesia's jobless youth had taken to the streets in noisy rallies against Golkar. Rioting in a number of cities marred the campaign. Afterward, election-related violence continued in East Timor. A grenade tossed into the back of a truck left 14 policemen and one soldier dead, with another five police and a trooper badly injured. In all, more than 400 people died during the campaign and in the days just after.

But protesting and casting a protest vote are two different things, especially in rural Indonesia. Seventy percent of the nation lives in villages, and a villager's life is pretty much dominated by Golkar. Officials dole out development money, vending licenses and much more. A village that votes against Golkar can expect to pay a price. Still, some did. The PPP won a solid 22%, its best result since 1982. The government party benefited from disaffection with the Democratic Party (PDI), whose elected leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was ousted from office a year ago at a government-backed special congress. Many supporters were unable to forgive her successor, Suryadi, for what they consider his betrayal. The party won a mere 3% of the vote. As a result the PDI, which secured about 15% in 1992, may not be able to take any seats in parliament. Regulations state that each of the three government-sanctioned parties must be represented on every house commission. There are 11 commissions and the PDI may have won only ten seats.

The strong vote will give Suharto a free hand to arrange delegates to next March's Consultative Assembly session, where he is expected to be selected for another five-year presidential term. But it has not convinced those who believe Suharto's style of government is out of touch with society. The middle class is increasingly critical of Jakarta's closed political system. Many in the business community feel cheated by the blatant abuse of position by the relatives of senior officials. And the poor are frustrated by a growing income gap. "A victory like this will make people more suspicious and more likely to protest, even to the point of riots," says Sanit.

The government's view is predictably upbeat. "For us, this victory is something that we will use for the benefit of the people, to meet the aspirations of the people for change and progress," said Harmoko, who is also the minister of information. "This is a vote for our policies of change and renewal." But Golkar's "policies of change" are unlikely to satisfy its critics.