Indonesia Takes a Bet on the Ballot Box

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And to think General de Gaulle whined about governing a nation with 265 types of cheese... Indonesians voted Monday in their first democratic elections in five decades, but with 127 million voters spread across 14,000 islands -– many of whom have nothing more in common than the fact that they were once colonized by the Dutch -– a coherent result will be difficult – and certainly slow in coming. Although half of the vote should have been counted by Tuesday night, only a meager 1 percent of the total was revealed, raising fears among the opposition of government vote rigging. But that may not be necessary: The president will be appointed by a parliament composed of the 462 legislators elected Monday, together with 38 appointed by the military and 200 nominated by the present military-backed government. Add to that an opposition fractured between secular and Muslim parties, and it’s likely that despite the democratic breakthrough, the country’s next president will be decided in a series of backroom deals.

President B. J. Habibie’s Golkar party – the traditional representative of the military and the Suharto dictatorship –- is expected to fare poorly at the polls, although the parliamentary system is stacked in its favor. The leading opposition contender – way ahead in the small number of ballots counted – is Megawati Sukarnoputri, the democracy-activist daughter of President Sukarno, who was overthrown by Suharto in 1965. Her secular Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle has a loose coalition agreement with the Islamic-oriented National Mandate and National Awakening parties. Even if the opposition coalition manages to secure enough seats to outvote Golkar and the government-military nominees, they’re fiercely divided among themselves over whom to elect as president. And that may offer the present rulers an opportunity to tempt one of them into a coalition. "In habitual democracies, elections provide the answers in political contests," says TIME East Asia correspondent Terry McCarthy, "but in Indonesia the first free election in 44 years is just setting the questions."