Nostalgia for dictatorship as Indonesia heads to polls

Voters choose national and regional legislators Monday.

The brightly colored flags of 24 different parties still flutter across Indonesia. Campaigners, many of them unemployed youths attracted by the gift of a free T-shirt, have gone home after a month of motorbike cavalcades.

The run-up over, as many as 147 million voters cast ballots Monday for national and regional legislators. Later on June 5, Indonesians will have the first-ever chance in this nation's 59-year history to directly elect the president.

Despite these signs of vibrancy, there is widespread political disillusionment just five years into Indonesia's fledgling democracy - one of the few in the Muslim world. Many voters profess a yearning for the stability under former dictator Suharto, who resigned in May 1998, and his ruling Golkar party. A swath of minor parties - including Islamic groups - and notorious figures from the past are also riding the wave of nostalgia.

Polls show a swing away from the incumbent and once popular President Megawati Sukarnoputri and her party, the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P). Golkar is expected Monday to give the PDI-P a serious challenge.

"Reform hasn't gone anywhere under Mega," said Sony Fiardi, a taxi driver reached by phone on the island of Batam, south of Singapore. "It's time to switch."

In her three years in power Mrs. Megawati has been aloof, rarely granting interviews or making public appearances. Many of her economic reforms, such as cutting power subsidies, have been unpopular with the poor and have failed to deliver jobs to the 40 million unemployed in this nation of 217 million. And little appears to have been done to curb the endemic corruption blamed for plunging Indonesia into financial chaos in 1997-98.

"The people feel the elite has abandoned them," says Dede Utomo, a US-trained political scientist at Airlangga University in Surabaya, who has studied voting behavior in Indonesia. "Ordinary Indonesians are disappointed with all the political talk-back TV shows."

The sentiment is evident in an acronym popular in editorials this year. SARS, the respiratory disease that swept Asia, also stands for "Nostalgic for Suharto" in Indonesian initials.

Several figures from the authoritarian past have been actively campaigning, trying to tap the hankering for the past.

The most prominent is General Wiranto, former armed forces chief. Mr. Wiranto, who is also a presidential front-runner, has been indicted for possible war crimes in East Timor. Suharto's eldest daughter, Tutut - once a symbol of corruption and nepotism - is also heading her own political party and campaigning for president. Even Prabowo Subianto, former head of Indonesia's Army Special Forces, is taking a stab at the top job. Mr. Prabowo was fired in 1998 after he confessed to ordering the torture of student activists.

Recent surveys by the US-based International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) show the PDI-P is trailing Golkar by 14 percentage points. Polls are also suggesting that secular parties are still likely to dominate. The Japan-funded Indonesian Survey Institute said that seven in 10 Muslims were likely to favor nationalist over Islamist parties. It is unlikely that any party will emerge with a majority, so coalition building will be crucial.

Many voters say that the presidential elections are more important than Monday's poll. Even critics admit Megawati is still a strong contender in that race. But an IFES poll shows retired Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono leading with 18.4 percent to Megawati's 11.6 percent.

Agus Subagyo, a PDI-P legislator in Central Java, dismisses the polls, which he says only capture the relatively small portion of the population with access to cellphones and the Internet. "In the heartland, the villagers still love Mega," he says.

The president's strongest drawing card may be her charisma, which partly stems from her status as the daughter of Indonesia's popular founding president, Sukarno. "She might have made mistakes, but she's still his daughter," says Parno, a rice farmer reached by phone in Yogjakarta, Central Java.

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