Suharto's party poised for dramatic return to power

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The Independent Online

Given the repression, corruption and human rights abuses that characterised the regime of President Suharto, it seems inconceivable that Indonesians would consider voting for anyone associated with the former dictator.

Given the repression, corruption and human rights abuses that characterised the regime of President Suharto, it seems inconceivable that Indonesians would consider voting for anyone associated with the former dictator.

But six years after Mr Suharto stepped down amid street protests, his party looks likely to win the majority of parliamentary seats in a general election to be held in the world's most populous Muslim nation on Monday.

Opinion polls put the Golkar party ahead of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is facing discontent over the slow pace of reform, falling standards of living and entrenched corruption.

If the polls prove correct, Mrs Megawati's days as president could be numbered. If Golkar fares better than the PDI-P, it is likely to field its own candidate in presidential elections scheduled for July.

Golkar's candidate is likely to be either Akbar Tanjung, the party chairman, who is tainted by corruption allegations, or General Wiranto, the former military commander recently indicted by the United Nations over the atrocities in East Timor during the 1999 independence vote. The election of either candidate, particularly Mr Wiranto, would be an international embarrassment for Indonesia.

Indonesians yearn for strong leadership, which helps explain the wave of nostalgia for the economic and political stability of the Suharto regime. An acronym - Sars, standing for Sindrom Amat Rindu Soeharto, or Longing for Suharto Syndrome - has been coined.

Golkar, despite its claims to have reinvented itself, seems likely to benefit. So might an array of Suharto-era figures. They include Prabowo Subianto, the dictator's former son-in-law, who was implicated in the kidnapping of pro-democracy activists and is chasing the Golkar presidential nomination.

Mr Suharto's eldest daughter, Siti Hardijanti Rukmana, has been nominated as the presidential candidate of a new party, Concern for a Functional Nation. Mrs Siti, known as Tutut, has been promising to improve the lot of poor rural voters and bringing greetings from her father, 83, who lives in Jakarta, having escaped trial on corruption charges by claiming ill-health.

Tartigo Makmur, a farmer, said: "It was a good time under Suharto. Things were peaceful and our international reputation was high." Political analysts believe that although Mrs Siti is unlikely to present a serious challenge, she could be seeking to rehabilitate her family's image in order to lay the ground for a future bid for power. Three daughters of Indonesia's revered founding president, Sukarno, including Mrs Megawati and her sisters Rachmawati and Sukmawati, head rival parties, each one claiming to be the rightful heir to his ideological legacy. "The government has been unable to represent the aspirations of the people," Mrs Sukmawati said. "In other words, it has failed."

Twenty-four parties are contesting the legislative elections, which are a logistical nightmare in a country of 147 million voters spread across 17,000 islands. Air force planes and even donkeys have been enlisted to distribute ballot papers.

Few of the parties have outlined any policies. Instead, they are relying on their personalities - and old-fashioned bribery. Voters at campaign rallies have been showered with cash, cigarettes, T-shirts and meals.

Depending on how well Golkar polls, the party may strike a deal with the PDI-P to nominate a vice-presidential candidate to run with Mrs Megawati. That could prove a winning ticket in July and, if so, Indonesia will face five more years of stagnant government.

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