How democratic will Indonesia's election be?

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How democratic will Indonesia's election be?

By James Balowski

Last January, Indonesia's B.J. Habibie government announced a series of "electoral reforms" and set an election date of June 7. Since then, the establishment media has repeatedly asserted that this will be the first democratic election since that held under President Sukarno in 1955.

Since 1985, only three officially sanctioned parties have been allowed to contest elections: the ruling party Golkar, the United Development Party (PPP) and the government-controlled Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). The regime has on a number of occasions intervened to ensured that the PDI and PPP elect "compliant" leaders, the most recent instance being the ousting of popularly elected PDI leader Megawati Sukarnoputri in March 1996.

Between February 22 and March 4, political parties began registering with the Attorney-General's Office. One hundred and four parties met the deadline and their eligibility to participate in the election was investigated by National Verification Team (known as the "Team of 11").

On March 4, the Team of 11 announced that it will recommend that 48 of the registered parties be allowed to contest the election. In addition to the three previously sanctioned parties, those with the highest profile include the National Mandate Party (PAN) led by Amien Rais, the National Awakening Party (PKB) headed by Abdurrahman Wahid, PDI-Perjuangan led by Megawati, the United Indonesian Democratic Party led by Sri Bintang Pamungkas, the National Labour Party headed by Mochtar Pakpahan and the Justice Party.

PictureThe People's Democratic Party (PRD) — which the regime had previously accused of trying to overthrow the government and banned, imprisoning many of its leaders — has been allowed to contest the election.

Eligible political parties will contest 462 of 500 seats in the People's Representative Assembly (DPR), with all members of the DPR automatically becoming members of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), the highest decision-making body in the country. Thirty-eight seats in the DPR will be given to military appointees.

The MPR will also include 200 government appointees, 135 regional representatives, 65 representatives of social and mass organisations, and appointees from the armed forces. There will also be elections for the provincial (DPRD-I) and district assemblies (DPRD-II). Each party can compete in all 27 provinces, although at this stage it is still unclear if East Timor will be included.

All citizens over 17 and married people under 17 will be eligible to register to vote. Based on the 1997 election, this amounts to 124.7 million people, out of a population of more than 210 million. Members of the armed forces (including police) are not allowed to vote.

The pre-selection of candidates for the DPR, DPRD-I and DPRD-II will finish by April 15. Following voting on June 7, the results will be announced between June 20 and July 12. On August 29, the new members of the MPR will be sworn in and from October 28 they will hold a 10-day session to elect Indonesia's president and vice-president.

New electoral laws

Critics point out that the MPs who drafted the new electoral laws were elected under Suharto and that this casts doubt on the fairness and neutrality of the July election.

According to the new laws, parties that wish to participate must have branches in at least nine provinces and half of the districts of each province. This discriminates against very new parties and favours the larger, conservative, nationwide parties.

Although the number of appointed MPR members is significantly less than the 575 in previous parliaments, 238 members will still not be elected. As well, despite reducing the number of military appointees from 75 to 38, and promises that military representation will eventually be phased out, the 38 unelected military seats represent around 10 million votes.

The dual (social and political) role of the armed forces also remains intact. In the provincial and district parliaments, the armed forces will occupy 10% of the seats. This, combined with their influence in all levels of government, will give the military considerable say in the appointment of governors and district heads.

In the past, all civil servants were required to join the Indonesian Civil Service Corps, all members of which were automatically members of Golkar and required to vote for it. The new electoral laws do not allow civil servants to join any political party unless they take a leave of absence or resign.

Although Golkar has gone to great lengths to reinvent its image, for many it is still strongly associated with the Suharto regime. But particularly in the rural areas, where new parties have yet to establish a presence, it has considerable financial and administrative resources and influence.

Also unclear is what role the Special Investigation Team will play. During the Suharto era, the team screened all candidates for alleged communist sympathies and many candidates were dropped. The Minister of Home Affairs, Syarwan Hamid, has said there is not enough time to create screening bodies and that this will be left to individual parties. Former Communist Party members and their relatives will have the right to vote, but not to be elected.

Government control of the administration of the election process also raises the prospect of manipulation and fraud. As in the past, the ballot papers will require voters to pierce the symbol of the party of their choice. This makes it easy for officials to invalidate non-Golkar votes by piercing a second symbol.

Although the government will allow independent observers to monitor the election, it will be difficult for such bodies to cover the 300,000 polling stations. The United Nations Development Program is planning to assist three poll monitoring networks, the Independent Election Monitoring Committee, the University Network for Free and Fair Elections (UNFREL) and the Rectors Forum. The Rectors Forum and UNFREL will train 600,000 poll watchers, mostly students, around the country.

On March 5, Reuters reported that Habibie has also agreed to the presence of international observers. However, on the same day Agence France Presse (AFP) reported that the government had threatened to deport foreign monitors if they do not have proper visas or are not registered with Jakarta's UN office. Also that day, the Indonesian Observer newspaper quoted a senior foreign affairs ministry official that "errant expatriates" were coming into the country posing as tourists "but actually giving lectures on election monitoring at university campuses and other places".

Money politics

Also of concern is the buying of votes and bribing of influential people such as local and village heads by Golkar and other large parties.

In the past, Golkar persuaded people to vote for them by promising to fund local development projects. Given that a Golkar victory is no longer inevitable, this kind of political leverage is now likely to used by a range of major parties.

Golkar was also weakened by a major split late last year. On December 1, a number of prominent Golkar figures, including former vice-president Try Sutrisno and former defence minister Edi Sudradjat (both retired military officers), split away with nearly 100 discontented members to form the Justice and Unity Party.

In February, the news weekly Detektif reported the chairperson of the Supreme Advisory Council, Baramuli, as saying that Golkar officials had distributed 100,000 rupiah to some 200 village heads in East Nusa Tenggara — which he described as "money to buy clothes" — along with food packages. Baramuli is an advisor to Golkar's central board.

On February 2, the South China Morning Post said that opposition figures claimed the Suharto family is funding 12 political parties in an attempt to influence the outcome of the election. Team of 11 member Kusumah was quoted by the paper as saying: "They want to maintain political influence and to make a political defence mechanism. They also want to create a political safety net by providing this kind of financial support."

A senior source from PAN said that "Suharto family agents" had offered them 11 billion rupiah and asked for the bank account number of party leader Rais. "We rejected the money, but it is clear the money machine is already working", the source said.

On March 7, AFP reported that an estimated 200,000 people packed a Jakarta sports stadium in a mass show of support for Golkar. Following the rally, Golkar chairperson Akbar Tanjung said he expected Golkar to gain 40% of the vote — enough, he claimed, to remain the largest party in parliament.

On March 9, however, the Australian said that many were paid the equivalent of a day's wage to attend the rally. A number of popular singers were also hired for the event and many people left as soon as the speeches began.

Washington's preference

On February 10, the Dow Jones Newswires (DJN) ran an article titled "Elections won't harm economic program: IMF". The report stated that the International Monetary Fund's top official in Asia, Hubert Neiss, said that Indonesia's main "opposition" leaders support the IMF "reform" package. The package requires massive cuts to government spending on social services and subsidies on basic goods, and economic restructuring to further open the economy to control and exploitation by international capital.

Rais, Megawati and Wahid — who, along with PAN, are expected to receive the largest vote — have on different occasions raised the possibility of their parties forming a coalition before or after the election. In a March 8 DJN report, Rais stressed that he would prefer to unite with PDI-Perjuangan, but refused to rule out a coalition with Golkar after the election.

The US has been quick to lend its blessing to the election. Following a meeting with Habibie on March 5, Reuters quoted US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as saying Habibie is "obviously devoted to having this happen — a free, fair and open election". Like the IMF leaders, Albright also met with moderate opposition leaders, including Megawati, Rais and Wahid.

A "war of colours" has already started between those parties with money. Thousands of flags and banners of the PPP and PDI are springing up across the country. As the head of the central leadership committee of the PRD, Faisol Reza, said in an interview with the Indonesian publication Bangkit: "The PRD is not a huge party like PKB and PAN ... The PRD doesn't have a newspaper, television access, a radio or [Mosque] loudspeakers [which reach into] the rooms of the people."

Despite the limited changes in Indonesia's electoral laws, Indonesians are learning that, just like in western "democracies" such as Australia, direct manipulation and fraud are not necessary to win elections. What it takes is money.