Indonesia's Next Vote

Indonesians elect a new parliament May 29 amid extraordinary political turmoil. Last July riots broke out in Jakarta following the government's removal of a popular opposition figure, Megawati Sukarnoputri, as leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). More recently, there have been disturbances at rallies held by a second officially recognized opposition party, the Muslim-led Development Unity Party. On May 23, political violence in the city of Banjarmasin, on the island of Borneo, resulted in more than 140 deaths.

Is President Suharto's well-oiled one-man rule showing signs of teetering after three decades? Is there any chance the world's fourth most populous nation might soon move toward real democracy?

The short answer to both questions is no. The president's party, Golkar, may well get its anticipated 70 percent of the vote. Suharto, his autocratic habits aside, has overseen significant economic growth, and an expanding middle class may be more concerned about stability and protecting its new prosperity than about its inability to openly criticize the government.

The most influential voice of dissent belongs to Megawati, daughter of the Indonesian independence leader Sukarno. But she was deprived of an electoral vehicle when the government engineered her removal from the PDI. Megawati announced she would not vote, saying she had been unconstitutionally removed in order to ensure a large Golkar victory.

True, no doubt. But the move against Megawati may have been more directly aimed at another election, next March. That's when the People's Consultative Assembly, a 1,000-member body that includes the 500 members of the largely rubber-stamp parliament, meets to elect a president. Suharto's reelection is assumed. He could arrange a majority in the assembly even if his party doesn't sweep this week's election. But Megawati represented the possibility, at least, of actual competition.

Even with all threats removed, succession has to be on the president's, and the nation's, mind. The problem with one-man rule is always transfer of power. In the long run, genuine democracy is the best path to stability. A pronounced turn in that direction may not be imminent, but an evolutionary process may have begun.

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