First free poll in 44 years gets underway

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The Independent Online
CROWDS FILLED the streets of the Indonesian capital Jakarta yesterday as the country's first free and fair election since 1955 got off to a rowdy but mainly peaceful start.

Among the hundreds of trucks and motorbikes that toured the city in a grand parade, the red flags and black bull logo of the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) could be seen everywhere. "Long live Mega", young men yelled from the backs of trucks swathed in red banners. Megawati Soekarnoputri, the PDI-P's leader, is the favourite of millions of Indonesia's poor. She is also a likely future president.

However, floats painted in the yellow of the ruling Golkar party were attacked by many poor people. In Jakarta, the party of Indonesia's former dictator, President Suharto, is hated. Pop singers and television actors riding on the Golkar floats were forced to flee. Smashed yellow plaques lay in the road.

Ms Megawati's party is likely to win the largest number of seats in parliament in the election on 7 June, and to make sure Golkar is defeated, she has allied herself with two other reformist leaders, Abdurrahman Wahid and Amien Rais. The two men, both Muslim intellectuals, command many millions of votes between them.

To many of Jakarta's people the colour and noise of the parade is a welcome diversion from the country's deep economic downturn. Many had been expecting riots like those which preceded Suharto's downfall exactly a year ago. Unrest on that scale now seems unlikely, with more than 60,000 troops and police keeping watch on the city. But clashes between parties have claimed at least 10 lives in other parts of the country in recent weeks. Golkar members have been attacked by Megawati followers, and there are tensions between old and new Muslim parties.

Many Indonesians say they know little about politics. In the Suharto era, Golkar won votes by bribing people with food or money. That attitude remains: many people are less interested in manifestos than the freebies that the parties give away.

Ade Indra, an activist from one of the smaller parties, handed out leaflets from a truck. "Give me a T-shirt!" called out a young woman. "It's the content that counts," the activist grumbled. "No, the T-shirt!" the woman insisted. "This is Suharto," Mr Indra explained. "He created this culture." He predicted that most people would pick a party because of the personality of the leader, or vote the way their fathers did, or even sell their vote.

Even among the opposition parties, democracy is often only half understood. Ms Megawati herself refuses to debate her policies with other leaders on the grounds that it is against her "Oriental values".

And Suharto's structure of repression is still in place. Mr Indra was in Jakarta because the police in his home town in Sumatra are taking a deep interest in student activists.

Even if the country's first democratic election in decades goes smoothly, it will only be the first step for the democrats.