Indonesia: Pre-Election Blues?


Associate Professor Howard Dick

Now is a time of great unease. The economy shows signs of stabilising but law and order continues to erode. Rioting and destruction in Ambon, another massacre in Aceh and inter-communal strife in East Timor have captured recent headlines. Petty crime and looting, protests, strikes, gang warfare, demonstrations, siege and even ransacking of government offices and police posts have become the daily fare of the press throughout Indonesia. This is not just media sensationalism. People much repressed are no longer intimidated by the state apparatus and ready to take matters into their own hands.

The former guardians of stability, the Armed Forces, have not been able to contain this civil unrest. Not only is respect for the Armed Forces at its lowest ebb since 1945. 'Unidentified elements' associated with the Armed Forces appear to have been acting as provocateurs. This has been documented for the violence of May 1998. Though justified as urban peacekeepers, the recently armed paramilitary squads are regarded as quite undisciplined and have been linked to the strife in Ambon. General Wiranto's position is not so strong that he can yet move against rogue officers and units or, without loss of face, disband the para-military.

The breakdown of law and order is eerily reminiscent of previous times of crisis, most notably the Revolution (1945-49). That period was also haunted by the spectre of rampok (violent robbery). At that time the Dutch were the target. Now it is the rich and the middle class, especially Indonesian Chinese, who feel vulnerable. They can pay Police and Army for protection but they cannot buy security. People have to try and adjust their habits to stay out of harm's way.

Anyone used to the New Order's artificial stability could be forgiven for thinking that Indonesia is falling apart. Nevertheless, Indonesia has experienced such turmoil before. Foreigners should not be too quick to draw conclusions. The eventual lesson of this crisis may be not the fragility of Indonesia but its resilience.

However, matters are unlikely to be resolved by the June national election. The outcome will establish parameters by showing which parties can mobilise votes and how their supporters are distributed across the country. It is widely hoped that the election will give rise to a coalition government able to gain the support of the country but this happy ending cannot be assumed.

The complication is that there is not one power struggle but multiple interlocking power struggles. These involve a) competition between political parties, b) the battle for survival by politico-bureaucratic interests, c) the tension between civil society and the Armed Forces, d) the contest for control of the army itself, and e) struggles for control of individual provinces.

In Thailand it took twenty years for the struggle between civilians and the military to be resolved, and it would have taken even longer but for the judicious intervention of the King. Indonesia has no King.

WATCHPOINT: The next few months are likely to be tense. Will 'unidentified elements' continue to disrupt the peace in the lead-up to the election? Will this again destabilise the economy?


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