How Indonesia's Quirky Elections Raise Tensions

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Despite the trappings of democracy, Indonesia’s presidential election process is about as transparent as the Vatican’s College of Cardinals. And so, as the 700-seat national assembly gets set to choose a new president on Wednesday, tension over the outcome is increasing, with the legislative building surrounded by angry demonstrators. "None of the three front-runners commands a majority in the assembly, and that has laid the process open to precisely the kind of Byzantine backroom deal-making that has enraged the protestors outside," says TIME Asia reporter Nisid Hajari.

The candidacy of President B. J. Habibie appeared to have suffered a deathblow Tuesday when the assembly voted to reject his speech giving account of his 16-month tenure. Habibie's prospects had dimmed Monday when powerful armed forces chief General Wiranto declined his offer of the vice presidency. Even if Habibie drops out, it’s hard to pick a winner. Opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri polled the most votes in June’s election — and her legions of protesting supporters have vowed to launch a revolution if she is denied the presidency — but she has declined to get involved in the behind-closed-doors deal-making. "Even her own supporters complain privately of her reluctance to dirty her hands," says Hajari. In fact, it’s precisely Megawati’s populist inclination that has the country’s traditional elites ganging up to find a way to keep her out. One way may be to elect Abdurrahman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur, a Muslim cleric and former Megawati supporter backed by the Central Axis coalition of Islamic parties.

It may be a three-horse race, but there are more than three possible outcomes. Habibie’s Golkar party could always select a new candidate at the eleventh hour, and General Wiranto remarked cryptically on Monday that he would be prepared to enter politics if "the people" wanted him. For those outside the chamber, Wednesday may seem a little like waiting in St. Peter’s Square for that puff of smoke. Except that unlike the Catholic faithful, those outside Indonesia’s assembly may well reject the outcome.