Polls open in Indonesia for electoral sham that passes as democracy

As the Indonesian elections get under way this morning, there will be a great deal of tension in the air, but not for any of the reasons usually associated with democratic politics. Long before the campaign even began, the outcome was clear: sometime in the middle of June, when the results are finally gathered in from across the vast archipelago, President Suharto's Golkar party will once again have won by a huge margin.

The two opposition parties will make a modest, decent showing, and the turnout will, as usual, be high, around 90 per cent. There is only one big question hanging over what the government calls its "Festival of Democracy": will it see further outbreaks of the violence that has made this the most lethal election campaign of President Suharto's 30-year reign?

Compared to last week, the last few days have been uneventful. On Tuesday and Friday, in cities all over Java, there were confrontations between police and campaigning Muslims; over the weekend at least 130 were confirmed killed in blazing riots in southern Borneo.

Yesterday, only two deaths were reported (police shot dead in a rebel ambush in East Timor). The Japanese embassy was evacuated after a bomb hoax - one of several scares which occurred throughout the day - and four men were arrested on suspicion of planning an explosion in a Jakarta shopping centre. If things go as swimmingly as that today, the government will feel a little bit less embarrassed by its choice of motto for this month's campaign: "Make A Success of the Elections".

Politics in Indonesia, as the slogan indicates, is all about appearances, and by this standard these elections have been a terrible failure. Even by the government's (assuredly conservative) count, the number of electoral fatalities rose last week to more than 250, though for the government the numbers killed are less worrying than their source - a growing dissatisfaction with President Suharto and the creaky electoral apparatus by which the regime legitimises itself.

Indonesia's elections are a fix, an elaborate and sophisticated one. Ballot-box stuffing, open bribery and intimidation are not widespread and in theory any party can achieve a majority in the 500-seat House of Representatives (DPR). In practice, a series of measures, imposed at every stage of the electoral process makes it impossible for anyone but Golkar to win more than a token proportion of the vote.

The range of those entitled to enter politics is strictly curtailed. Apart from Golkar, only two opposition parties - the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) and United Development Party (PPP) are legally permitted.

In April, 12 Indonesians received sentences of up to 12 years for their alleged subversion in organising the unofficial People's Democratic Party. The government effectively appoints opposition leaders - when Megwati Sukarnoputri, the leader of the PDI, began to emerge as a potential challenger in the next year's presidential election, she was deposed in a government- backed coup.

Golkar dominates public life and the media - civil servants, and families of military members are constantly urged to support it. Coverage of Golkar rallies by the state television company TVRI exceeded that of the opposition parties put together, according to a group of independent election monitors. Aspirant politicians are screened before being allowed to stand, and anyone suspected of ever having had Communist sympathies is barred - 200 people fell at this hurdle, most of them opposition politicians. The result is a highly compliant assembly characterised by Indonesians by the "five D's": datang, duduk, diam, dengar, duit - "turn up, sit down, shut up, listen, take the money".

Given these restrictions, the options are limited. Mrs Megwati has announced that she will boycott the votes - the proportion of spoilt ballots and abstentions will be one of the few statistics worth keeping an eye on. With such advantages, Golkar has to do very well to legitimise itself, and if it falls significantly short of its goal of 70.2 per cent, it will be a blow. But this will be an election remembered for violence.

"Never before," said the academic Mochtar Buchori, "have I seen such intense anger, jealousy and frustration."

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