Indonesia: All Eyes on the Elections


Associate Professor David Reeve

It is only five months until Indonesia's next general elections, now scheduled for 5 April 2004. For the first time in Indonesia's history there will also be a separate presidential election, on 5 July, with a probable run-off between the two final candidates on 20 September. The separate election will strengthen the office of the presidency.

But what will happen in the elections? No-one really knows - because Indonesia has never before had a free election that passed judgement on a previous, fairly-elected government. It is astonishing that so little is known about Indonesian electoral behaviour nearly 60 years after independence.

Indonesia has only had two democratic elections before, in 1955 and 1999. The 1955 election produced no majority party, but instead four parties which each captured between 17 to 23 per cent of the vote. This was a terrible blow to democracy, as it held out no alternative to unstable political coalitions. Within a year Sukarno had begun to propose the introduction of 'Guided Democracy'. Suharto's New Order held regular elections, but was determined to create its own electoral majority through its electoral vehicle, the Golkar Party. Military and bureaucratic support regularly produced stage-managed majorities of around 62-72 per cent.

So the election of 1999 was only the second democratic election since independence. Megawati's PDI party did best (33.7 per cent), but the electorate was still deeply divided. Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati became president in turn. Both had to pull together coalitions in the parliament (DPR).

There were several surprises in 1999. The discredited New Order Golkar Party managed to come second (22.4 per cent). The PPP, an Islamic party formed by the Suharto government, still managed to come third (12.9 per cent). All the Muslim parties combined still did not manage a majority. Amien Rais' PAN party, a modernist Islamic party with fresh ideas, did poorly (7.1 per cent).

Two things are clear about 2004. Megawati's policies have disappointed many of her followers. Reformasi has stalled. The legal system is a mess. Corruption is worse. Megawati has intervened in several local elections to support ex-military figures rather than her party's candidates. Second, there is a great disaffection with party politics in general. Parties are seen to be consumed with power and privilege. There is a general dislike for their dirty deals, 'money politics' and the use of political thugs (premanisme).

But no-one knows how this disaffection will affect voting. Does Indonesia have swinging voters? Or is it true that Indonesian parties reflect broad cultural-social blocs; that voters do not really care about programs and policies, but vote for leaders who symbolise their values? Megawati's supporters may have lost their initial enthusiasm, but they may not want to shift their votes to another bloc - better the symbol you know.

Opinion polling is still rather undeveloped in Indonesia. Some polls suggest many voters are undecided. Nostalgia for Suharto's rule - called SARS (Saya Amat Rindu sama Suharto - 'I really yearn for Suharto') - may produce a swing to Golkar. Golkar is still in trouble through keeping Akbar Tanjung (convicted on corruption charges) as its leader. There are even suggestions that military leader General Wiranto might make a comeback via Golkar.

There are no striking new faces or new ideas in this campaign so far. The only candidate who seems able to create enthusiasm is Nurcholish Madjid, the cleanskin intellectual and modernist Muslim. He has not yet found a party to run with. If he could, he would probably be a great vote-winner.

With five months to go, tension is mounting, but there remains great confusion about voting behaviour and also about the complicated new voting procedures. There could be surprises, but the signs aren't there yet. In five months we will know much more about Indonesian voting behaviour.

WATCHPOINT: Who will Megawati choose as her vice-presidential candidate? Will Golkar stick it out with Akbar Tanjung?


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