After Years of Stability, Vote Signals Frustrations


AMID growing cries for a more open, equitable society, Indonesians go to the polls today to elect a new parliament.

Since coming to power in 1966, President Suharto's military-backed regime has staged such elections every five years, hoping to show the world a democratic face. Yet parliament has no real clout and voting remains a coercive exercise, particularly in rural areas of this sprawling archipelago of 183 million people. With Golkar, the ruling party, routinely winning more than 70 percent of the vote, no one stays up late for the election returns.

But there are clear signs of a country restless for change.

The three-week election campaign witnessed a surge in interest in the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), a small rival party led by the children of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno. Playing on Sukarno's image as protector of "the little man," PDI stalwarts harped on the gap between the rich and the poor - making unusually bold references to the excesses of Suharto's own family.

"This country belongs to all of us. It doesn't only belong to me and my family," said PDI parliamentarian Kwik Kian Gie, in a campaign speech broadcast nationwide on government television. "Clearly, we don't want a Kingdom of Indonesia." The speech was a hit even in remote villages outside Java, where most voters would not dare risking a vote for PDI.

The nepotism issue illustrates how parliament, despite its weaknesses, is beginning to play a key role in promoting critical awareness among Indonesians. Until recently, the government quietly prevented the local press from probing the Suharto family's business activities. But over the past year, the print and broadcast media reported parliament hearings on some of the more questionable family monopolies, including the distribution of cloves for Indonesia's lucrative cigarette industry.

Frustration has also set in, since the newly vocal parliament can do little about the problems it airs. In 1990 and 1991, student activists from central and east Java brought farmers by the busload to Jakarta, demanding a hearing on land appropriation cases. Now they have virtually abandoned that strategy. Likewise, factory workers often found themselves out of a job after complaining to parliament of miserable working conditions. Indonesia has turned into Asia's new sweatshop, with an oversupply of labo r forcing wages down.

For Indonesian youth, beset with worries about school fees and unemployment, the election campaign has helped let off steam. In Jakarta, PDI rallies climaxed with the Rolling Stones refrain, "I Can't Get No Satisfaction," as thousands of young cadres danced in uniform red T-shirts and headbands. More than 2 million young people participated in PDI's May 31 motorcade through Jakarta. Motorcades of this kind are usually banned.

Suharto's confidence stems from his increasing support among Indonesia's Muslim population, the largest in the world. More than 85 percent of Indonesians are said to practice Islam, but the government keeps the exact religious breakdown a secret, worried about inflaming ethnic divisions in this diverse, secular state. The president's popularity soared last year when he and his wife made the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

While Indonesia is undergoing an Islamic revival, the political party most closely associated with Islam is weaker than ever. In the villages of East Java, Madura, and other Muslim strongholds, influential clerics are deserting the United Development Party (PPP) to sign on with Golkar. "This is part of the success of President Suharto's regime in depoliticizing and domesticating Islam," says Aswab Mahasin, editor of the monthly Prisma.

Indonesia's military establishment once viewed Islam with suspicion, having put down regional rebellions in the 1950s aimed at creating an Islamic state. In the early years of his rule, General Suharto muzzled outspoken Muslim figures and supervised the merger of four obstreperous Muslim parties into one that could be more easily controlled.

Since then, Suharto has replaced the stick with a fistful of carrots. Starting in the mid-1980s, he has helped build hundreds of new mosques and channeled funds to religious boarding schools known as pesantren. Muslim leaders point to other boons: a new Islamic bank, a ruling allowing school girls to wear veils, new laws that strengthen Islamic courts and Islamic education, and Muslim proselytizing at transmigration sites outside Java.

The question remains whether Indonesia's Muslim groups are emerging as an effective lobby or simply being coopted. "All these ulamas [Muslim clerics] that join Golkar don't become strong; the government is the one that becomes strong," says Syafik Rofil, a PPP candidate in Madura. "This kind of power doesn't support democracy, openness, or freedom."

With Muslim leaders behind him, and a middle class tied to the business interests of the ruling elite, Suharto looks likely to escape the fate of his military counterparts in Thailand. Next March he will most likely stand for a sixth term, and win. Many Indonesians continue to view the armed forces as an essential element in maintaining national stability and continued development. "Liberal democracy is going to be dangerous," says A. Nasrulloh, who leads a pesantren in East Java.

Without greater political openness, however, the nation's youth runs the risk of maturing into a giant tabula rasa. At campaign rallies, the young men screaming slogans were hard-pressed to explain their newfound political devotion.

"The danger will be if there is a political party trying to manipulate the situation," says Jakarta high school principal Arief Rachmann. "I don't think the students are prepared to react properly. They don't have the power of analyzing where to side."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to After Years of Stability, Vote Signals Frustrations
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today