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Elections, violence and unemployment

American Reporter - December 29, 1998

Andreas Harsono, Salatiga – Two boys were taking a nap as three men waited for the heavy tropical rain to stop under a red-and-black shelter in this city last week. Quietly, one man said, "We're lucky to have this bamboo shelter."

But this was no ordinary shelter. Its walls displayed two huge posters of Indonesian opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri and her late father, the nation's founder, President Sukarno. Other long banners read, "Megawati Will Win" and "PDI Protects All of the People." The messages made it clear the shelter belongs to Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party. How lucky its inhabitants are remains to be seen.

Across this small town of 100,000 people, dozens of shelters like this one were established over the last two months. Lawyer Indra Budiman of the Salatiga-based Percik legal aid organization said they are so numerous that "every kampong [neighborhood] has at least one ..."

A retired high-ranking official estimated that more than 27,000 PDI shelters have already been set up in 9,426 villages in the province of Central Java where Salatiga is located. "It's self-financed and it's quite an effective way to attract 20 million voters in this province," he said.

Nobody could mistake these shelters, with all of their dazzling red-and-black posters along most of the major streets in Central Java are the PDI's preparation to get as many votes as possible in the coming presidential elections scheduled for June 1999.

The PDI initially founded the shelters – where party workers usually gather and chat every night – to prevent the growing number of riots and violent clashes in their respective areas. Others soon joined them and soon enlarged the Megawati camp.

Indonesia-watcher William Liddle of the Ohio State University predicted that in addition to the PDI, two other political parties will also get a large bite in the election: the Nation Awakening Party (PKB) of Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid and the ruling party Golkar party of President B.J. Habibie.

Strangely, Wahid and Megawati are close allies. The Jakarta-based Merdeka newspaper reported that the two leaders had vowed to support each other. If the wheel-chair bound and nearly-blind Wahid cannot run for the presidency, he will support Megawati and vice-versa.

Liddle said two other political parties – the National Mandate Party of reform leader Amien Rais and the Muslim-based Moon Star Party – might also get a goodly chunk of the election ballots, noting that the two are likely to get less votes than the PDI, the PKB and the Golkar, which still has the political machinery and funding to maintain its influence.

But both Habibie and Golkar will face tremendous challenges to repair their destroyed images. Habibie is widely known as a crony and indeed protege of former president Suharto. The former president is now facing public pressure and daily student protests to hand over his fortune accumuulated during his 32 year in power.

Like most of the PDI activists who guard the shelters, many Indonesians hope that the June election will be a turning point in this crisis-torn country where unprecedented economic collapse, massive unemployment, political upheaval, social mayhem and waves of savage killings have taken place on a daily basis since January 1998.

Analysts and foreign diplomats, however, doubt whether Indonesia can reach that goal in the near future. One election, they say, will not be enough to turn a country which experienced the Suharto dictatorship into a truly democratic one.

Worse than that, the world's forth most populous country is also having the worst and the most complicated economic crisis in Asia. The Indonesian rupiah declined from 2,300 to the dollar in July 1997 to between 7,000 and 16,000 throughout 1998. It closed at 7,945 to the U.S. dollar on Monday.

"The key to the economic recovery is the election. Ironically it is difficult to hold a fair election if people have just lost their job," said businessman Sutanto Pranoto of the Spectra ad agency in Semarang, the provincial capital of Central Java.

Pranoto predicted that another massive dismissal will be produced at the end of the Ramadan fasting month in Febuary. "Rather than to pay a Ramadan bonus and severance pay, it's better to pay only the bonus and let the workers walk away," businessmen will decide, he says.

The result is likely to be more riots. "People become more emotional. Village heads cannot manage their people anymore," said Daniel Budi Setiawan, whose trucking firm PT Siba Surya has dismissed nearly 60 percent of its drivers. "I don't know what will happen if the villagers come to the cities," he added. "Some drivers came to me and begged to let them return to work. I cannot stand it and let them work. But economically it doesn't work," said Setiawan, referring to increased prices of spare parts as well as soaring bank interest rates.

Researcher Muhadjir Darwin of the Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta estimated that the number of poor people in Indonesia will reach 130 million in 1999 as a result of the massive unemployment and a soaring inflation rate.

Throughout much of the nation, conditions are no better. In some places, they are worse. Riots ripple daily through the increasingly lawless countryside, where tens of millions have sunk into desperate poverty. Food shortages are common, and in several provinces, secessionist movements are gaining.

In May, rampaging mobs looted and burned more than 5,000 buildings in Jakarta, leaving 1,200 people dead. That proved to be the opening act of a violent drama in which a bewildering array of forces, seen and unseen, compete to shape the nation's future within an atmosphere of intrigue, treachery and ethnic tension.

A few kilometers away from the PDI shelter, more than a dozen coachmen of the traditional dokar horse-drawn carts began their dinner in silence. Some coachmen lit their clove cigarettes and murmured that they doubted whether the Habibie government and the powerful military are sincere about reforming Indonesia's political system.

"I don't know who I will vote for in June. But if I have to cast my ballot today, probably, I will vote for Megawati," said coachman Ali Achmadi, adding that he considers Megawati to be the most moderate among other figures.