John Aglionby, Jakarta – Released from the shackles of dictatorship, Indonesians are seizing their new political freedom with enthusiasm.
Mr Soeharto, the former president who only allowed two carefully controlled minor parties and his own ruling Golkar group during most of his 32 years in power, had scarcely moved out of the State palace when people began forming new political groups.
Two parties, the People's Democratic Party (PRD) and the Indonesian Democratic People's Party, already existed but had been banned and their leaders imprisoned. They are now legalised, and have been joined by many other groups, with a new party appearing almost every day.
The Indonesian Christian Party and New Masyumi are both revivals of religious parties active when the country's first president, Dr Sukarno, allowed multi-party democracy in the 1950s in the country of 205 million people.
Other groups, such as the Indonesian Reform Party and the New Indonesian National Party, are taking advantage of the demand for reform. Some represent specific interest groups. At the weekend two dozen people climbed one of the highest volcanoes in Java to proclaim the United Republic Party, the first green party in the sprawling archipelago of 17,500 islands.
The only conditions the new President, Dr B.J. Habibie, has imposed is that all parties must adhere to the State ideology known as Pancasila and must reject communism. Communists are still blamed for the uprising in 1965, which was put down with the slaughter of up to 500,000 people and the overthrow of Dr Sukarno.
The most controversial of the new organisations is the Chinese Indonesian Reform Party, known simply as Parti, which aims "to defend our rights and create true harmony among Indonesian citizens", according to one of its founders, Mr Ponijan.
Parti wants to end the isolation and ostracism of Chinese Indonesians, who are not allowed to join the armed forces or the Public Service. Ethnic Chinese make up less than 5 percent of the population but are said to control 70 percent of the economy. They are often a target of social unrest, as in the May 13-15 riots in Jakarta which helped to bring down Mr Soeharto, when thousands of Chinese-owned businesses were looted and burnt and in some cases owners were killed or women sexually abused.
Many people fear Parti will perpetuate racial divisions. The chairman of a Chinese-Indonesian Muslim group, Mr Ali Karim, said the group was established "simply out of emotion", and might have "harmful repercussions" on the Chinese by highlighting race issues.
The biggest casualty of the new political era is the ruling party, Golkar. One of its largest affiliates has broken away to form a separate party, claiming Golkar does not represent its members' aspirations. The party's business wing is threatening to follow suit.
The leadership is coming under fire. The chairman and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr Harmoko, has been told he should resign at an extraordinary party congress called for the middle of next month. Under Mr Soeharto's patronage, Golkar developed a stranglehold on the electoral system, and the United Development Party and Indonesian Democratic Party were not even allowed to campaign in rural areas.
However, now that Indonesia's millions of public servants are no longer obliged to support Golkar, and corruption, collusion and nepotism are slowly being eliminated, the party's days of power are numbered. Dr Habibie has not set a date for a new general election, but polls are not expected before May, since the Government will take that time to introduce new political and electoral legislation.
The chairman of the committee drafting the legislation, Mr Ryaas Rasyid, said the electoral system would probably combine single-seat constituencies with proportional representation. The aim would be to ensure minorities were represented without repeating the chaos of the 1955 election, when 169 parties contested 257 seats.
The outstanding question is the future role of the armed forces, which are allocated 75 of the 500 seats in Parliament, and are still the most powerful socio-political force in the country, supplying most of the 27 provincial governors. Dr Habibie has insisted he will not alter the military's "dual function", and Mr Rasyid admits his committee has not yet found a solution to the problem.
[Contrary to this report, the PRD has not been unbanned. The requirement that all parties adhere to Pancasila (which was one of the accusations made against the PRD during the trials) and must reject communism is likely to be used as a pretext to maintain the PRD as a banned organisation - James Balowski.]