Election opens a new era in Indonesia

The Japan Times: Thursday, June 17, 1999

Special to The Japan Times

     Earlier this month I visited Indonesia to observe its June 7 elections. Arriving in Jakarta June3, I found the capital in a fervent mood, as if it were on the eve of a revolution. The streets in central Jakarta, including even back alleys, were be decked with red flags and bull symbols of the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan(PDIP), the leading opposition party. The campaign was so boisterous the whole city appeared to be celebrating a festival.
     Women were taking an active part in the campaign, comprising more than half of the procession that marched through the streets on buses, trucks, motorcycles and bicycles. That was rather unusual in a Muslim country where women traditionally hold a lower social status than men. Also remarked was the large turnout of children. In fact, there were more children than adults in the procession. Many families came out in their cars.

Supporters of Megawati Sukarnoputri's triumphant Indonesian
Democratic Party of Struggle parade down the streets of Jakarta.


     The PDIP , known by its English name as the Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle, was sending a clear and loud messages: The June 7 ballot would bring about a tectonic change in Indonesian politics - a shift to multiparty democracy and one-party rule by Golkar. Indeed, the election campaign suggests that Indonesia is in for a social revolution, not just a change of the political leadership.
     That should help to explain why, paradoxically as it may sound, political parties conducted little debate on specific policy options. In the view of Western experts , the top issue for Indonesia should have been to fix its acute economic problems. For the Indonesian people, however the big issue was set in black and white terms: whether to maintain or change the existing social system.
     In a nationwide poll taken by a U.S. think tank from December 1988 to February 1999, Indonesians were evenly divided in their replies to the question: "How would you describe the current economic situation in your community today?" While 40 percent said it was "fairly good" and 1 percent "very good" 47 percent described it as "fairly bad" and 8 percent as "very bad".
     When asked: "Do you or your spouse work in a job for which you receive money?" only 24 percent said "yes". This indicates that only a small segment of the people is participating in a modern cash economy.
     It is easy to imagine that children - who dominated the street campaign - will create trouble for Indonesia in the future. Symbolic in this sense was the sight of a small child, apparently an elementary school boy, driving an overcrowded campaign car. That, of course, is illegal, but police officers just looked on, perhaps because it was a special occasion.
     The campaign reminded me of Cambodia's Pol Pot regime, which used children as an instrument of political suppression. One of my colleagues - an election commissioner from Sir Lanka - had a similar impression. I observed the elections as a member of an expert team dispatched by the Asian Association of Election Authorities.
     Of course, the exploitation of children by Cambodia's despotic Pol Pot regime is fundamentally different from the voluntary participation of children in campaigns for democratic elections in a country trying to replace a military dictatorship whit a multiparty system. Nevertheless, bringing these unruly children into line as part an orderly society will be no easy task.
     The immediate question is how Indonesia's political situation will develop. PDIP leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of former president Sukarano, will probably be elected president in the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), which opens in late October. The MPR will have a total of 700 members - 500 members of the unicameral Parliament (DPR) who have just been elected, 135 local delegates (five each from of the 27 provinces ) and 65 group representatives who are not directly represented in the Parliament. There is little possibility that someone other than the head of the PDIP - which gained the largest number of votes in a democratic election - will become the nest president considering the present political atmosphere.
     However, even if Megawati is elected president, she and her party -which garnered nearly 40 percent of the vote - will likely face great difficulties in meeting overwhelming public expectations for change - a change not only in the political regime but in the social system as well.
     The latest vote count indicates that the PDIP will fall short of a majority. Consequently, Megawati, acting on a campaign promise, will have to form a coalition government with Patai Kebangkitan Bangsa, the Muslim party headed by Abdurramhan Wahid (PKB), known popularly as Gus Dur, and Partai Amanat Nasional (PAN) led by Muslim leader H.Amien Rais.
     The PDIP is a nationalist party that advocates "pancasila" - the Sanskrit derived word defining the basic principles of national existence that Indonesia adopted when it became independent in 1945.So it will not be very difficult, at least in theory, for the party to change and modernize the political and social systems.
     Pancasila includes these principles: belief in the one supreme god; just and civilized humanity; the unity of Indonesia; and democracy. However, they are now interpreted much more widely than before. For instance, "supreme god" is defined loosely enough that anyone who is not an atheist is accepted. Communist parties are outlawed.
     However, of the 48 parties that took part in the elections, 19 are Muslim parties, many of which faithfully follow the teachings to Islam. These hardline parties denounce, among others, PAN leader Rais as traitor of Islam. PAN is trying to became a more open religious party. Opposition from the hardliners will make it difficult for PAN and PKB to take nonreligious lines in a prospective coalition. To break the deadlock will require pragmatic leadership on the part of both Rasis and Wahid.
     Megawati, meanwhile , has an advantage of her home: In 1996 she was ousted as president of the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia(PDI) ,which was the quasi-opposition party under the Suharto regime. That event changed her image as a pro establishment opposition leader and earned her a new status as a populist leader eager to change the political and social regime itself. Now Megawati has a golden opportunity to use that position as a lever to bolster her power base. With a woman at the helm of state, momentum for social change will likely build in Indonesia ,the world's largest Islamic country.
     The pancasila principles of "supreme god" and "unity" will put the Indonesian government in a tight sopt regarding the East Timor referendum scheduled for August, in which a majority of residents are expected to vote for independence. The question for Jakarta is whether it will be able to accept the outcome with an open a colony of Portugal , is not Muslim.
     The best way to solve the issue of East Timor is to give it full autonomy and create a loose federation of Indonesia and East Timor. In making the necessary preparations - which will take time - Megawati and her likely partners, Rais and Wahid ,will need to demonstrate leadership in realistic way.

Party Name Votes (%) Seats
PDIP Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle 35.7 140
Golkar Golkar Party 20.9 99
PKB National Awakening Party 12.0 37
PPP United Development Party 10.6 40
PAN National Mandate Party 7.8 27
PBB Crescent Star Party 2.0 3
PK Justice Party 1.5 1
(June 16, 1999:  63 percent of votes counted)

     Rei Shiratori is professor of political science at Tokai University and president of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan (IPSJ).