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With so many predictions of violence and failure, the 1999 Indonesian general elections instead turned out to be a celebration of politics, at least in the core areas of the state. At polling stations across the archipelago some 130 million voters cast votes in what was the first open national election since 1955. In some senses, it was even a celebration of democracy, or at least of democratic aspiration.

The celebratory aspect of the elections saw many students revive the old Suhartoist term `festival of democracy', although without a hint of irony. Perhaps `carnival' would have better described the dancing, banging of drums, costumes, street theatre and papier-mache floats of the political rallies that peaked with more than a million Indonesian Democratic Party--Struggle (PDI-P) supporters converging in central Jakarta just three days before the poll.

Even the electoral count was public, with voters returning to polling stations across the country to watch the local tally. Each ballot paper was shown to all present to confirm the accuracy of the count, amidst much laughter, clapping and calls of approval for virtually every party but that of the government -- Golkar. The atmosphere was festive, with some polling stations turning into spontaneous street parties after the close of counting.

As one Indonesian journalist commented, the major parties had shown themselves adept at mobilising huge numbers of people. What they continued to neglect, in time-honored Indonesian political style, she said, was translating that mobilisation into participation. The gap between Indonesia's political elites and its wong cilik (`little people') remains as unbridgeable as ever.

Significantly, however, many voters said that these elections really belonged to the people who were casting the votes.

Yet in Indonesia's periphery, in Aceh, East Timor and Irian Jaya and to a lesser extent other outlying provinces, the elections were a far less happy affair. In Aceh most polling stations were closed due to conflict between the pro-independence Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh Movement) and the Indonesian military. In East Timor the elections were supported only by pro-integrationists, the real poll -- to decide future relations with Indonesia -- being scheduled for late August. In Irian Jaya -- West Papua -- the vote was relatively peaceful, but many voters told observers that the central issue was not choosing representatives to go to Jakarta, but asserting West Papua's claim for independence.

The euphoria of the elections in the less troubled areas also quickly dissipated as the poll results trickled in at an agonisingly slow pace. Many suspected that, while the vote at the local level had been transparent, it was being manipulated further up the line. Yet the real trouble was that with three levels of political, representation being voted for, across 320,000 polling stations staffed by amateurs, having to pass through seven levels of bureaucracy and all without computerisation, it could never have been any quicker.

Even so, early on it became clear that the most popular party, Megawati Sukarnoputri's PDI-P, would only secure around a third of the 500 People's Legislative Assembly (DPR) seats and would need to form a coalition. Similarly, President Habibie's Golkar, although with only around a quarter of the available seats, was also looking at a coalition. This was further complicated by the requirement to fill a further 200 seats in the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), which elects the president. These extra seats come from the provincial representatives, `functional groups' and, with thirty-eight seats, the military.

Even before the poll was conducted, the horse-trading had started. However, differences between the parties and, more importantly, their leaders created difficulties from the outset. Although Indonesian political parties have moved closer to a conventional party format, in many respects they still reflect a system of client-patron relations, in which a political leader's strength is based on quasi-mystical charisma and usually an assumed representation of populist aspirations.

This often misplaced cult of personality creates difficulties for compromise between outsized egos. One might think the parties could at least coalesce around policy issues, yet the whole electoral campaign was notable for its lack of discussion of policy. Economic policy, for example, in a country riven by economic crisis, was no more sophisticated than degrees to which political leaders accepted an `off-the-shelf' IMF prescription.

Even if a coalition could be stitched together, there was considerable resistance to the idea of Megawati, who is no intellectual heavyweight, becoming president. This then indicated that the PDI-P and Golkar-led coalition camps could opt for a `consensus' presidential candidate. The alternative was to diffuse the power of the president through a political triumvirate (president, vice-president and chair of the DPR).

Perhaps the key player in this process of consensus or diffusing the power of the president was the military. Although it has less direct political representation than before, where once its votes were tied to Suharto it is now a free agent. Many observers believe that military chief General Wiranto could move into one of the country's top political positions. Even if this did not happen, the political strength of Indonesia's military is probably greater now, vis-a-vis the political leadership, than at any time since the late 1980s, and it will have a defining influence on the outcome of the presidential race.

Considering the disconnection between Indonesia's political leaders and their supporters, the indirect method for settling the membership of the MPR, the push against the leader of the most popular party and the continuing, indeed increased, influence of the military, one could wonder what all this means for Indonesia's much vaunted `democratisation'. Paths to democratisation can be fraught and the goal is not always guaranteed. With its 1999 elections, Indonesia has taken a step down a democratic path. But it is only the first step.

Damien Kingsbury is author of The Politics of Indonesia (OUP, 1998). He monitored the Indonesian elections with the Australian Council for Overseas Aid.
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Publication:Arena Magazine
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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