Something Smells Rotten in the State of Indonesia

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Indonesians are starting to smell a rat. Their first democratic election in 44 years went off without a hitch Monday, but with only a handful of votes actually counted two days later, opposition parties fear the election may be being stolen out from under them. Turning a country whose 127 million voters are scattered across 14,000 islands from a military dictatorship into a democracy was never going to be easy, but the General Election Committee had promised to complete half the count by Tuesday -– and by Wednesday night it had tallied only 7 percent. Indonesia’s stock exchange hit a two-year record high on Tuesday, buoyed by the strong showing of opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, but it resumed its slide Wednesday as everyone from opposition leaders, Western election monitors and even by the leader of the military-backed ruling party, President B. J. Habibie, expressed concern over the slow count.

Vote-rigging, though, may not be necessary for the country’s current rulers to maintain their grip on power. The new president will be appointed by a parliament composed of the 462 legislators elected at the polls, together with 38 appointed by the military and 200 nominated by the present military-backed government. From the initial count, the ruling party is drawing 20 percent of the vote, which would bring it –- under the stacked-deck electoral system –- within a whisker of holding on to power. Add to that an opposition vote split between Megawati’s secular Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle and various Islamic parties, and the country’s next president still looks likely to be decided in a series of backroom deals. Then again, no military-backed deal is going to enjoy much legitimacy if the vote-counters don’t get a move on.