Indonesia Faces Unsettling Prospect Of Real Democracy
Freedom to organize political parties, announced last week, could divide country.
For Indonesians who resented the rule of their toppled dictator, these are days of politics unbound.Skip to next paragraph
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The politically engaged plan demonstrations, form new parties, and celebrate their newfound freedom. Most of all, they ponder their options. Every step forward in their brave new world deepens the risk that they will be caught and punished should everything come crashing down.
In a radical departure from the policy of his mentor and predecessor, Suharto, President B.J. Habibie opened the door to new political parties last week, announcing that anyone is free to form one. Suharto had imprisoned hundreds for unauthorized political activity.
Alex Irwan, an editor at the nation's leading business daily, was once banned from Indonesia's educational institutions for inviting a dissident writer to speak at a university.
But sitting at a patio table in the muggy warmth of an early Jakarta evening, he now considers the political roads open to him: a workers' party, a pressure lobby for ethnic Chinese, a corruption-oversight group, and continuing involvement with student organizations.
These options wouldn't have been available just two weeks ago - especially the corruption group, which aims to investigate the wealth amassed by former President Suharto and his family.
"Eventually I'll have to choose," Mr. Irwan says with a laugh, "but right now it's very interesting."
What's less amusing is the possibility that Indonesia's military or some part of it could seize power in the name of stability. "If there's a coup, they'll pick up people who form the new parties," says Irwan.
After 32 years of autocratic rule, people here are addressing the most fundamental questions about how to rule themselves. It's a moment of great opportunity, but the new possibilities come burdened with new uncertainties. Some wonder whether a Western-style democracy is possible or even advisable in this diverse nation of more than 200 million people, scattered across a 17,000-island chain.
A new openness
"Before in Indonesia, we couldn't talk about politics. Now, everyone's talking about it," says Irwan's wife, activist lawyer Edriana Nurdin. "Many of my friends say it's now or never, the gate is open, and that's why every day you see a new party."
Mr. Habibie insists that new parties not be based on ethnic, racial, or religious grounds and that they abide by pancasila, the official state ideology designed to unite the country's various religious groups and ethnicities.
Pancasila incorporates five principles: a belief in one god, (each Indonesian can choose his own), nationalism, humanism, social justice, and popular sovereignty. Suharto argued that 'pancasila democracy' offered an indigenous alternative to alien Western values and he used the ideology to squelch any independent political activity.
But even as Habibie preaches unity and adherence to pancasila, groups are forming along religious and racial lines. The Chinese lobby group that has asked Irwan to join hopes to gain more of a political voice, and the Muslim community has stepped up its political activity in support of Habibie, who helped found a politically oriented group of Islamic intellectuals.