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MPs baulk at plan for direct elections

Australian Financial Review - November 25, 1998

Greg Earl, Jakarta – Indonesia's political reform process has hit a new obstacle with signs that the Parliament might substantially change the Government's plans for a new direct electoral system at the June election.

Representatives of all three established political parties and several new parties opposed the new system during discussions with government officials earlier this week, and called for a return to the old proportional representation system.

But as President BJ Habibie faces more chaos in the streets – there were protests in four areas of Jakarta last night – he has won renewed support from the military and a key opposition figure to remain in the presidency as a stabilising force.

Government officials have previously claimed that rejection of the new direct election system by Parliament would set back the schedule for the general election, which appears set for June 7.

Any delay in the general election would delay the later presidential election and probably intensify the student protests and ethnic violence occurring in the streets.

The Government proposed a system of about 80 per cent single-member seats and 20 per cent proportional seats from a national electorate in a 495-seat Parliament, but now says it will listen to alternative views.

Most Indonesian academics have long supported a move to direct electorates to make Parliament members responsible to the electorate. The old proportional system was dominated by Jakarta party bosses and manipulated by the central Government.

But there is suspicion among new parties that the new system is designed to favour the Government's Golkar Party. Few new parties are in an administrative position to select individual candidates across the country, which makes the old system more attractive. Sceptics also say parliamentary members don't want change because they would be unlikely to be selected as candidates in the new direct system.

The Government's chief electoral reformer, Mr Ryaas Rasyid, warned MPs this week that they would be held responsible if they forced the old proportional system back on to the public, even though it provided no direct contact between the Government and the electorate.

The electoral debate has underlined a proliferation of disputes between old vested interests as President Habibie and the security forces appear to have become immobilised and weak. For example, many political analysts believe the vicious ethnic battle in Jakarta on Sunday was premeditated, designed to divert attention from the student protests and create instability.

The military's senior political officer, Lieutenant-General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has again given the army's firm support to the President, saying there is no constitutional basis for replacing him with a presidium.

A former environment minister and possible new party leader, Mr Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, told a conference the resignation of Dr Habibie would not be a good result for Indonesia. Both General Bambang and Mr Sarwono said the multi-member presidium, which is favoured by radical opponents of Dr Habibie, would not bring any extra stability.