Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Indonesia's Explosion of Choices June 7 Parliamentary Election Has Risks of Continuing Violence And

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Indonesia's Explosion of Choices June 7 Parliamentary Election Has Risks of Continuing Violence And

Article excerpt

In a sky white with heat and haze, 48 flags flutter atop Indonesia's Election Commission headquarters. Far below, Sukria glances up at them as bean-curd cakes sizzle in his deep-fry vending cart. "I can't really tell you what parties they all belong to," he says of the flags. Each one represents a group contesting next month's elections; 45 of those parties are brand new. "I can't even tell the parties apart," Mr. Sukria chuckles. "But I do know who I'm voting for - and I can't tell you that either."

Sukria's trip to the polls on June 7 will be part of a historic journey for Indonesia. Though President B.J. Habibie has governed for the past year, the vote will formally punctuate the end of former President Suharto's 32-year dictatorship and launch the country toward a democratic future.

The transition involves some risk. Beyond worries about poll- disrupting violence, there are concerns that the election commission simply won't be ready in time. This matters not only to Indonesia, but to neighbors near and far as well. The oil-rich archipelago sprawls across 3,000 miles of strategic shipping lanes plied by tankers and US aircraft carriers. If the election is a success, it will make Indonesia the third-largest democracy in the world. "I don't know how it's going to turn out," muses Sukria, who has only one name, like many Indonesians. "I just hope the next government will be clean and good." It's been almost 40 years since Indonesians have had much of a choice in politics. Former President Sukarno, Indonesia's founding father, ended a period of parliamentary democracy in 1959. Suharto took up the reins in 1966 and staged "festivals of democracy" every five years. These ensured that one party got the majority vote and offered one presidential candidate: Suharto. He offered Indonesians economic progress; the price was acceptance of his authoritarian rule. When Asia's economic crisis began in 1997, the bargain looked less attractive. By 1998, Indonesia's currency had fallen so far that food prices had tripled, and hungry, frustrated people began rioting. Students took up the cry, calling for an end to the corruption and nepotism that fueled the crisis, and a new leader to pull them out of it. Now the festivals of democracy are giving way to the real thing, a prospect one local resident likens to the lid of a steam kettle popping off at full boil. Sixty percent of the country's 200 million citizens have registered to vote. Their ballots go to fill 462 seats in Parliament; the military automatically receives another 38. The Consultative Assembly, which meets every five years to choose the president, consists of the 500 members of Parliament and 200 others. Previously filled with Suharto appointees, those 200 seats will now go to provincial representatives and groups the government feels are underrepresented. …

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