Indonesia awaits elections

On June 7, Indonesians will vote in the first stage of a complex process that will ultimately select a new president. The future of this island nation, the world's fourth most populous, depends on the election's conduct and outcome. One hopes the result will be the peaceful culmination of a democratic political transition that began when President Suharto stepped down in May 1998 after 33 years of authoritarian rule.

Under the Indonesian system, presidents are elected every five years by a People's Consultative Assembly that has consisted of the 500-member parliament (425 elected and 75 chosen from the military) plus an additional 500 appointed members.

Under the leadership of President B.J. Habibie who, as vice president, succeeded Suharto, significant changes have been made in the electoral laws. The number of appointed members to the People's Consultative Assembly now has been reduced from 500 to 200, of whom 162 will be chosen by provincial parliaments and 68 appointed from social groups. A General Election Commission, established to monitor the election, will oversee the appointment of the 68.

The most intense debate was over the composition of the national parliament. Many wanted to eliminate the military representation totally; the compromise was a reduction from 75 to 38, with 432 members (up from 425) now to be elected on the basis of proportional representation. The assembly that elects the next president thus will consist of 432 members elected nationally, 162 elected by provincial assemblies, 38 military members, and 68 from social groups.

The June 7 election takes place at a critical time in Indonesia's history. The Asian economic collapse caused widespread unemployment, bank failures, and a setback for a dynamic record of development. Dealing with the corruption of the Suharto era has proven difficult. Communal conflicts have erupted involving Indonesian Chinese, Christians, animists, and Muslims. The economic problems and the relaxation of authoritarian rule exposed serious internal tensions, exacerbated by the recent movement of peoples from Java and Madura to outer islands. The armed forces, which have traditionally held this archipelago together, are now sorely stretched by unrest in northern Sumatra, the Moluccas, and East Timor.

Forty-eight political parties, out of 150 that applied, have been approved by the General Election Commission. Many have roots in Islam; they differ on economic policies and on the degree to which Islamic law and customs should be part of the nation's life. To gain wider appeal, the most prominent seek to de-emphasize the Islamic aspect. One party, the Indonesian Democratic Party, has received particular international attention because of its leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia's first president. She emphasizes the need for a secular state. Supporters of former president Suharto are largely in the political group he endorsed, Golkar. Although Golkar has not yet chosen a candidate, it is presumed that if President Habibie seeks to run, it will be under the Golkar banner. No party is expected to gain a majority in the new assembly, so a coalition will be needed to elect a candidate.

Several questions remain. No one is yet sure how the appointed members and those from social groups will be chosen. A date for the actual selection of the president by the Consultative Assembly has not been fixed. If, as predicted, that selection is later in the year, a period of intense politicking could create worry and uncertainty in a troubled nation. Serious disturbances could still cause delays or cancellation of the election, but currently this is not considered likely.

On the positive side, Habibie has overseen a real liberalizing of the political system. The press is free. Parties and candidates will be able to campaign without serious restrictions. The armed forces, which have been the dominant political power since independence, are stepping aside.

The transition to democracy is never easy. Indonesia is in the midst of a courageous attempt. The world should give it credit.

*David D. Newsom, a former US ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs, lives in Charlottesville, Va.

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