Indonesia Faces Unsettling Prospect Of Real Democracy

Freedom to organize political parties, announced last week, could divide country.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For Indonesians who resented the rule of their toppled dictator, these are days of politics unbound.

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.

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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.

Some worry the divisions among these groups could become fault lines that make democracy unworkable. "The risks of a truly open liberal democratic system are so great," says Donald Emmerson, a political scientist from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He adds that regional independence movements, such as the 22-year-old struggle in East Timor, also pose a threat to unity.

Coalitions will follow

An Indonesia specialist who's visited the country twice this year, Mr. Emmerson predicts that an initial "anything goes" period will be curbed by a general agreement that coalitions are needed. That might produce a dominant central party, much like Malaysia's or Japan's, where pluralism exists within a political group.

Even the most ardent reformers seem a little unsettled by the political freewheeling of the past two weeks. At the University of Indonesia in Jakarta, students attending a celebration of reformasi this weekend spoke of the need for restraint and recalled the multiparty unrest of the 1950s.

Then, much as now, Indonesia faced political and military factionalism, economic decline, regional and religious dissent. In 1959, President Sukarno moved to end the discord by replacing Indonesia's parliamentary openness with an authoritarian system he called "guided democracy."

"We have to learn from the past," says art student Theagus Liliaman, a minor celebrity for his performance art condemning the Suharto regime. "Even small parties could get involved then. Now we have to limit them and only let strong ones get involved," he says.

Students led the call for Suharto's resignation, but now that their primary goal has been achieved, religious divisions are appearing. Among many students, says Irwan, "either you're for Habibie or you're against Islam."

The prospect of increased Islamic influence in government has led some Christian and moderate Islamic political groups to seek counterbalancing coalitions. "If you think about it, in a country that's 87 percent Muslim, democratization necessarily means some sort of Islamicization," says Emmerson.

Effects on the economy

Irwan worries that may spark a downward spiral. "The more Habibie feels his political position is weak, the more he'll mobilize Muslim support, the more that will scare the Chinese community and foreign investors, the worse the economy will get," he argues.

The International Monetary Fund is predicting the economy could shrink by as much as 10 percent this year, and already food is in short supply in the countryside.

If economic decline leads to unrest, military intervention could follow. "A worsening economy is the one thing that will force the military to act," says Emmerson.

"[But] it cannot happen now, not in this spirit of reform, in my judgment. Things have to get a lot worse."

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