Indonesian Elections Show Voters' Political Awareness, Parties' Inadequacies

By Gee, John | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Indonesian Elections Show Voters' Political Awareness, Parties' Inadequacies


Gee, John, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


They looked like small tablecloths. Voters in Indonesia's parliamentary and local elections were confronted with enormous paper ballots bearing the names of all the party candidates running in their areas, plus their party symbols. In many areas there was not just one ballot per voter, but as many as four-one for each of four different institutions with seats to be filled.

Two dozen parties ran a total of 448,705 candidates, and 124 million people voted-no wonder the count was slow! Initial predictions were that it would be completed on April 21-more than two weeks after the April 5 polls-but that turned out to have been an optimistic forecast. Early returns suggested that President Megawati Sukarnoputri's PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle) was running neck and neck with Golkar, the party that, until 1998, was one of the major props of the dictatorial Suharto regime. Gradually, however, Golkar pulled ahead.

Although the percentage difference between the two remained narrow, it was expected to translate into a big win for Golkar because of the way that representation in the national parliament is skewed to increase the weight of the outlying regions compared to Indonesia's densely populated core area-the islands of Java, Madura and Bali. While the PDI-P's greatest support is in Java and Bali, Golkar has an Indonesia-wide structure it has been able to use to hold ground in the areas where fewer votes net more seats.

The electoral outcome is not so much the result of a swing of support by voters toward Golkar (whose percentage share of the results is little changed from that of 1999) as of a swing away from PDI-P, which has lost around one-third of the support it enjoyed five years ago. This reflects the disappointment felt by many Indonesians who saw it as the party of reform, which would defend the interests of the poor and fight corruption and abuses of power by those in authority. The party proved largely ineffectual, however, and some of its elected representatives turned out to be every bit as adept at making money illicitly as the worst of their Golkar rivals. The chief responsibility for the PDI-P's loss of support lies with Megawati: she rode a tide of reformist support to win power, but then acted as a leader unaccountable to her own party grassroots.

The elections, which largely were conducted peacefully, testified to the political moderation and shrewd judgment of the Indonesian electorate. Most parties adapted their campaigns to prevailing public attitudes-which, in the case of the large Muslim parties, meant stressing issues of social justice and opposition to corruption, and not promoting the goal of transforming Indonesia into an explicitly Islamic state. The two parties that registered the most impressive gains, starting virtually from scratch, were the Democratic Party, led by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, until recently Megawati's security boss, and the Prosperous Justice Party, a modernist Islamist party that presented an image of youthful dynamism and strong opposition to corruption.

The outcome of the April polls has left Megawati in a weakened position to pursue re-election as president. The frontrunners for the presidency appeared to be Bambang and Wiranto, the Golkar candidate. This is bad news for democracy and human rights in Indonesia, and especially for the people of the disaffected territories of Aceh and West Papua, where there are simmering insurgencies in support of independence. Bambang is a retired lieutenant general who, as coordinating minister for political and security affairs, urged the imposition of martial law in Aceh and supported a policy of military suppression of Acehnese resistance. His was an influential voice in Megawati's cabinet, given her own indecisiveness. Wiranto is the retired general who is best known to the outside world as the commander in chief of the Indonesian army when it loosed its militia allies on East Timor after its people had the courage to vote for independence in a referendum. …

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