Indonesia's Last Chance

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JAMES VAN ZORGEFor Indonesia, the stakes have never been higher. Against the backdrop of economic crisis and spreading civil violence, the country is moving closer toward concluding the shaky post-Suharto transition. When Indonesians go to the polls in June, they will have an opportunity to throw the ruling Golkar party out of power. And when national parliamentarians and others convene in October to elect a new President, there is a chance they could choose a credible and legitimate leader. If all of this happens, there will be renewed confidence--not only in Indonesia's ability to restore law and order, but also in its prospects as a viable place to do business. But what if Indonesia fails? There is a real danger that the campaign season will be marred by internecine violence among the opposition parties. And once the final results for the elections are announced in late June and early July, bitter disputes could erupt between the losing and winning parties. In that case, the stage would be set for an uncertain and potentially dangerous climate in the run-up to the presidential elections. Finally, there is a risk that opposition parties will resort to money politics, like vote-buying, during the presidential selection process. In that case, Indonesia could once again be burdened with a president who is viewed as illegitimate. That would mean more uncertainty and signal to foreign investors that it's time to turn off the lights on Indonesia. Already the international business community is preparing for the worst. Many expatriates say they are preparing plans to evacuate before the general election. For good reason: Indonesia's campaign seasons are notoriously violent. Even under Suharto's New Order, when only three parties were allowed to contest and Golkar victories were preordained, street rallies could be bloody. This year more than 20 parties will be competing. Don't expect polite discourse. Although the government has announced a ban on street rallies, the security forces don't have the capacity to enforce the restrictions. And it would be naive to expect the contending parties to accept the ban. The only effective means of campaigning in Indonesia--where symbolism means more than substance--is to bring one's supporters onto the streets. Now that the government has promised free, fair and open elections, who could rationally expect party cadres to stay home and cancel the show? PAGE 1  |    
Worse, the military has announced a plan to employ tens of thousands of civil vigilantes to help secure law and order during the elections. That's a surefire recipe for disaster. Does the military actually believe that large numbers of untrained and undisciplined civilians will be able to keep the peace? If unrest does erupt, and it probably will, there are sure to be the familiar allegations that masterminds directed the rioting campaigners. Last year's unrest, kidnappings and student shootings are just a few examples of how blame is quickly deflected toward a convenient fall-guy or, failing that, murky forces. Nobody in the top ranks of the government or military, it seems, is ever at fault. The next critical task will be ensuring a fair election. Unlike the sticky problem of preventing campaign violence, here the government can make constructive and effective preparations. There are reasons for optimism. The government has okayed the presence of international and local election-monitoring agencies. Rectors from Indonesian universities have offered to provide 450,000 students to assist in monitoring polling stations, which number 600,000 and will receive around 100 million voters on election day. Still, good planning might not be enough. Even if the government is able to minimize corrupt polling practices, the probability is high that opposing parties will accuse one another of vote rigging and fraud. The new opposition parties--especially those led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, Abdurrahman Wahid and Amien Rais--fully expect to win over voters' hearts. Indeed, many Indonesians predict that the ruling Golkar party will fare poorly. But what if they're wrong? Given its superior political machinery and ample campaign funds, Golkar could conceivably do well.And if disputes result, the government-appointed national election committee will face a dire test trying to resolve them. Its members must be seen as acting in an impartial and credible manner. Any hint of favoritism, or a lack of authority to resolve disputes, will erode the committee's legitimacy. And that would bode ill for the ensuing effort to select a legitimate president. If the parliamentarians voted into office are believed--rightly or wrongly--to be there because of dirty politics, then how could their vote on the presidency be seen as valid? To restore stability, Indonesia's elite must work together to ensure that, whoever wins, the public will view the result as the real thing. James Van Zorge is editor of the Van Zorge Report, a biweekly newsletter on Indonesian politics   |  2