Are Indonesians ready for direct vote?

Ahead of next week's national assembly meeting, lawmakers debate how free elections should be.

In a highly anticipated face-off, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid goes before the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) next week to account for a rocky nine months in office. Recent days have seen Mr. Wahid, along with his high-ranking political rivals, trying to downplay the drama in the interest of the country's stability. Scholars are pointing out the disadvantages of replacing the embattled leader now just to placate those unhappy with his performance.

It's not been difficult, in this atmosphere, to forget the promise held just last autumn by Indonesia's first freely elected president. Coalition-building by the same body of legislators that will challenge Wahid elected the compromise candidate to the top spot in the first place. But if becoming president had been based on a simple vote count from the June 1999 general election, Wahid wouldn't be where he is today.

A 45-member group of lawmakers has been quietly preparing a constitutional amendment that would in principle make the world's largest Muslim nation more democratic, and lessen the effects of dealmaking that made Wahid president.

The proposal covers a range of issues, including human rights, impeachment proceedings, regional autonomy, creation of an independent supreme court, and balance of power between branches of government. But one controversial article divides the working group in two camps: those who favor direct elections and those who do not.

Jakob Tobing is in the latter camp. He's chairman of the working group, known as PAH I, and also the deputy head of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). The PDI-P won more votes than any other in the 1999 general election, and thus controls the most seats in the Assembly.

"The most important issue is ... what works best in our prismatic and primordial society," Mr. Tobing says. People's choices would be based more on "the emotional and sometimes beyond rational - like, who are the candidate's prayer for

parents, what kind of divine power does

he have - the charismatic aspect of the personality."

Tobing's concern reaches beyond the borders of his party. There is a fear in many circles that the public is not prepared to make a well-informed opinion on political matters. For much of former President Suharto's 32-year reign, there was no free press and most of the economic and educational development had been reduced to Java, the nation's most populated island. As well, the military was notorious for squelching free expression.

"For years we didn't have a free press or free schooling," says Anas Alamudi, a former student activist who took part in the May 1998 demonstrations that led Suharto to resign. "And now we've got a lack of educated people. We've been taught what to think, not how to think."

Recent studies, though, reveal that Indonesians view themselves as more than fit to elect their president directly. More than 70 percent of respondents in six separate surveys over the past year said they would prefer direct elections. Direct elections are also supported by most of the 11 factions in the Assembly, including Golkar, Suharto's former party.

"Who is the MPR to say it is better inclined to vote for candidates than the people?" says Andi Mallarangeng, a prominent Jakarta-based political analyst. "If the MPR votes, and they fail to reflect public consensus, it will raise a great potential for mass conflict."

Many analysts and members of the Assembly fear that without the endorsement of PDI-P, the article may not be ratified during the sessions this month, making it highly unlikely that Indonesia would hold direct elections during its next presidential election, in 2004.

Others suggest that more important than changing the party line will be to change the minds of individuals within the party.

"There is a possibility that there will be behind-the-scenes, big political-leadership dealing in which either unresolved options could be traded against each other," says Andrew Ellis, a senior adviser at the National Democratic Institute, which was founded in the early 1980s by the US Democrats. "Or unresolved options in the constitutional basket could be traded with issues in another part of the political forest."

Gumay said that several members of the PDI-P have told him off the record that they disagree with their party's line. Tobing said he is confident that few people within his party will change their minds.

PAH I member Valina Singka Subekti says the public should not lose sight of other issues that make up fair democracy; direct elections should not be seen as an elixir for Indonesia's numerous social, economic, and political ills.

"Many countries with direct elections are not democracies - look at Latin America," she says. "Many without them are model democracies."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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