Leap of Faith

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ANTHONY SPAETHA year ago, Indonesia was ruled by a dictator, Suharto, whose military kept an iron grip on the scattered archipelago, and whose family and friends treated the economy as their personal piggybank. Politics was a joke: Suharto allowed only three parties to function, including his own, and their platforms--and usually their leaders--were pre-determined.Today, Suharto is in forced retirement, the far-flung provinces are being demilitarized, the kids and cronies are under legal siege and some 140 political parties have materialized to contest a general election in June, the country's first genuine electoral exercise since 1955. Reformasi is the national slogan, and even though the election is 14 weeks away, the campaign is already building up steam. Across the archipelago, from tiny hamlets in Sumatra to the major cities of Java, candidates are setting up local headquarters. Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia's fabled ruler Sukarno, kicks off her campaign this week. In Penjaringan, a ramshackle slum in northern Jakarta, party flags are rustling in the sultry breeze. Suwarno, driver of a three-wheeled taxi, says he is ready for all the benefits of democracy, including perhaps the offer of a bribe for his vote. Of course I'll take it, he winks, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'll cast a vote for that party. If all goes well, Indonesia, with a population of 210 million and an estimated 120 million eligible voters, could become the world's third-most-populous democracy, after India and the United States. But that's a colossal if. And while the next three-and-a-half months will see many campaign promises, political partnerships and shifting fortunes, it will also be a time for well-founded trepidation and national breath-holding. Can the nation reinvent itself in the space of 12 months--with virtually no democratic experience and few truly national institutions? The loosening of Suharto's control has already resulted in waves of ugly violence against minorities, migrants and soldiers in several parts of the country. An actual fraying of the nation is also occurring. In January, the government of President B.J. Habibie suggested that East Timor might be given independence. Last week it allowed separatist leader Xanana Gusmao, convicted of trying to topple the state, to trade his provincial jail cell for house arrest in central Jakarta, where he'll be able to entertain supporters and foreign diplomats.Once in full swing, the campaigning is unlikely to be peaceful. The parties are going to exploit primordial sentiments, predicts Josef Kristiadi, head of politics at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. That's something to be feared in Indonesia at any time, and especially now in the depths of an economic meltdown. The economy shrank 13.5% in 1998, and the number of unemployed totals about 20 million. If that isn't enough, the army of civil servants who long benefited from membership in Suharto's ruling Golkar party continue to pull the levers of administrative power. It's a fight, says political scientist Mochtar Pabotingi, between those who want to re-establish democracy and those who want to suppress the people and take away their sovereignty. In other words, Suharto's crowd isn't as vanquished as it had appeared to be. (Either Habibie or Armed Forces Chief General Wiranto may run as Golkar's candidate for president in an indirect election scheduled for October or November, the second and probably more important half of the democratic experiment.) Says television talk- show host Wimar Witoelar: We've been going around in circles, overlooking the fact that Suharto is still in power. An exaggeration, perhaps, but understandable at a time of political transition with no obvious precedent. India was larger and more diverse when it went democratic after independence in 1947, but it had an admired leadership with staunch anti-colonial credentials. The Philippines in 1986 ejected a dictator who had ruled for more than 20 years. But it had enjoyed decades of earlier democratic experience and possessed many skilled political veterans and a made-to-order heroine in Corazon Aquino, who stepped swiftly into the vacuum and revised Ferdinand Marcos' custom-made constitution. Indonesia is more unwieldy. And its transition, with Suharto's hand-chosen successor, Habibie, governing mostly under the dictator's laws, has been less than decisive. Therefore, it is in for a far larger muddle. PAGE 1  |    
The biggest sign of progress so far is that the June 7 elections will be conducted under enlightened electoral laws passed last month. For the first time in decades, anyone can start a political party, and candidates will no longer have to be approved by Jakarta's intelligence agency. The country's 5 million civil servants have been formally relieved of their duty to vote for Golkar. In drafting the new electoral laws, members of the House of Representatives did concede two major points to Habibie and the ruling elite: they allowed the military to retain 38 appointed members in the house--still a big reduction from the 75 seats reserved under Suharto--and ensured that government representatives will equal those of political parties on the important Election Committee. The liberals swapped those compromises for a major concession: the government wanted parties to compete in a winner-take-all system for districts, giving Golkar a romping advantage in sparsely populated rural areas, but instead it agreed on a proportional system under which the parties' parliamentary seats will correspond to their respective shares of the national vote. The procedures remain imperfect. Among other anomalies: Indonesia's private TV stations, far from being independent, are still owned by Suharto's children and two cronies. But electoral liberalization has come a long way fast. It's a matter of jumping over hurdles at each stage, says Bob Dahl, a consultant with the International Foundation for Election Systems, but so far so good.Currently there are four main parties, distinguishable less by ideology than by the personalities of their leaders. The PDI Perjuangan, or Indonesian Democratic Struggle Party, is led by Megawati. She was in a position to become Indonesia's Cory Aquino in 1996, when Suharto had her ejected as president of one of the three legal parties, prompting her supporters to fight street battles in Jakarta. But Megawati was surprisingly diffident during last May's student protests that toppled Suharto, and she hasn't been very visible since. Some say the 52-year-old former housewife is captive to the Javanese concept of wahyu, or the mystical mandate to rule--embraced by her father and Suharto--and expects it to come her way as a matter of course. I haven't been saying much, Megawati told Time, because I can see that too many people have been talking without doing anything substantial. Less shy is Amien Rais, a pro-Muslim candidate who joined the student protests in May and, more recently, showed up at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to display himself to the global elite as a potential Indonesian leader. His National Mandate Party is picking up supporters, not least because Rais has abandoned the anti-Chinese and anti-Christian rhetoric he indulged in not so many months ago. The National Awakening Party of moderate Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid, also known as Gus Dur, is popular as well. But Wahid has a circulatory ailment that has left him nearly blind, and many followers are baffled by his increasing closeness to the reclusive former President Suharto, whom he has visited at least five times since mid-December. Golkar, meanwhile, can probably hold on to a sizable share of the national vote--especially in remote areas where other groups have yet to establish a presence--despite its identity as Suharto's old party. Through the decades, it became a vast umbrella shielding a variety of interests: Suharto's, Habibie's and those of cronies, civil servants and, most importantly, the still-powerful military. If civil servants decide not to vote for Golkar this time, the party could lose those 5 million votes. In January, retired General Edi Sudradjat started the Justice and Unity Party, a Golkar breakaway poised to split the party's traditional voter base. Student activists, meanwhile, tend to view Habibie and Golkar as the biggest threats to democracy--although the student movement has seen its cohesiveness and influence fade. Says Adian, who is allied with radical student group City Forum: How can you expect a corrupt government to carry out a clean election?The new house of representatives is sure to be split among a number of parties. Then the big democratic gamble begins. Indonesia's next president will be elected by the 700-member People's Consultative Assembly, which includes the house's 462 elected officials, along with the military's 38 appointed members, and 200 additional figures representing regions and interest groups. With power split among at least four parties, appointed military legislators and others, the most important jousting, cajoling, bribing and threatening will begin in the lead-up to the presidential race. If we want to convince people that this election is the gateway to a new era, says lawyer and political observer Marsilam Simanjuntak, it must be seen as a divider between the past and the future. In other words, if Indonesia's fling with democracy seems chaotic and scary now, just wait until after the vote.Reported by David Liebhold, Zamira Loebis, Jason Tedjasukmana and Lisa Rose Weaver/Jakarta  |  2