Indonesia goes to historic free polls

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The Independent Online
THREE WEEKS ago it was touch and go, a month before that it seemed highly unlikely, and at the beginning of last year the very suggestion would have been ridiculed.

But between 8am and 2pm today, in tens of thousands of tiny voting booths across the 13,000 islands of the archipelago, it will happen. Indonesia, once a byword for oppressive and corrupt dictatorship, will transform itself into the world's third-largest democracy.

That the outcome of today's election is so uncertain is a measure of how much has changed in the past year. Under President Suharto, driven from office a year ago after 32 years of unchallenged power, elections were a fraud in which two government-controlled opposition parties put up the pretence of competing with the inevitable victor - the ruling party, Golkar. This morning, Indonesians have 48 parties to choose from, whittled down from 148 which originally applied to compete.

The ballot paper resembles a complicated poster, bearing the names and crests, often bafflingly similar, of the contenders. There are trees, cogs, stars, crescents, half a dozen bulls and 32 stalks of grain. There is the Peace-Loving Party, the Democracy and Love for Nation Party, the bafflingly titled Fathers of Orphans Party, and three different Indonesian National Parties. The problem is now one of excess.

Yesterday Amien Rais, one of the front-runners to be the next president, complained to the Electoral Commission. The logo of his National Mandate Party had come out on the ballot papers in an unfortunate shade of purple, alarmingly close to that of a rival.

The most remarkable aspect of the elections, or at least of the three- week campaign, is how peaceful they have been. In many ways the past few months have been among the most wretched in the republic's 54-year- history. Secessionist struggles in the Muslim province of Aceh in Sumatra and in the occupied territory of East Timor bring almost daily reports of killings.

In the former Spice Islands a low-level conflict continues between Muslims and Christians. Against such a background, the prospect of a mass political campaign seemed suicidal to many Indonesians.

The Indonesian campaigning style, in which party supporters take to the streets in epic flag-waving convoys, lends itself to inter-party battles. But, apart from odd scuffles and scores of fatal traffic accidents, it has been triumphantly peaceful. The former US president Jimmy Carter, here with election monitors, spoke for many when he called it "a glorious demonstration by the Indonesian people ... that they are not only committed to democracy and freedom, but they are also committed to having a peaceful election."

It is the aftermath which will bring the real test of political transformation. The parliament elected tomorrow, with the addition of 200 unappointed delegates, will in November choose Indonesia's next president and, despite the diversity of choices, only a handful of candidates have any chance. Among front-runners are two Muslim scholars, Amien Rais and Abdurrahman Wahid, better know by his nickname, Gus Dur. President Habibie has been chosen as the candidate of Golkar. But the front-runner appears to be Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia's first president and leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle.

All are expected to gain more than 10 per cent of the vote, and Madam Megawati may win as much as 30 or 40 per cent, although none has much chance of a majority. Months of coalition-building are expected to begin next week as results trickle in. But those opinion polls which have been conducted are too sketchy to put much faith in, and a surprise result is always possible.

Given a strong result for a credible opposition candidate, a good deal of compromise by the partners in any putative coalition and an economic upturn, and the slow path to political recovery could begin next year. Such a coincidence of happy outcomes seems unlikely - and if the institutional strength of Golkar should bring a surprise success for Mr Habibie (combined with the 38 seats constitutionally guaranteed for candidates from the armed forces), it could well provoke an angry backlash similar to that which brought down Suharto last year. The minority of Indonesians who were alive during the last authentic elections in 1955 recall only too well how short-lived was their last experiment democracy: within a few years the result had effectively been overturned by the then president, Sukarno.

Whatever happens in the next few months, Indonesia after tomorrow will never be the same again. On an overhead traffic-sign in Jakarta a group of wits have balanced a coffin, shrouded in yellow, the colour of Golkar. The epitaph on it reads: "Status Quo. Died peacefully in 1999 at the age of 32."

The Main Contenders

Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P)

Symbol: Angry black bull against a red circle.

Presidential candidate: Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Daughter of Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno, she is the most popular politician in Indonesia, with a vague nationalist platform.

National Mandate



Symbol: White star against a purple background.

Presidential candidate: Amien Rais. A political scientist, he is backed by modernist Islamic intellectuals. Distrusted by minorities, including Christians and Chinese.

National Awakening


Symbol: Nine stars and map of Indonesia on a green background

Presidential candidate: Abdurrahman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur, is a moderate, secularist Muslim credited with magical powers, including the ability to circumcise small boys from a distance.




Symbol: Banyan tree.

Presidential candidate: President BJ Habibie.

Former vehicle of ex-president Suharto, it has been discredited in the past year among urban voters. May draw surprisingly large support from the more conservative rural areas.