Indonesia: Chaos and Control

With the abrupt transition of power in Indonesia, pressure is building for elections. For too many casual observers of government, elections are equated with democracy. Simply calling for elections ignores the fact that no credible electoral system exists, or ever had existed in Indonesia.

In order to guarantee control of the legislature by the government party, the present system provides for appointed members of the central legislature and severely limits party participation.

In contrast, the first general elections that Indonesia held for parliament in 1955 were open to all and vigorously contested. Candidates from 180 parties ran in the nation's 16 electoral districts.

Using the Dutch form of proportional representation, seats were allocated first in each district and then in the center where remainder votes from all districts were combined for additional seats. This central distribution added 17 parties to parliament that didn't win a single district seat. The complicated system delayed announcement of official results from the Sept. 15, 1955, election day until mid-March 1956.

Despite this elaborate system designed to reflect the diversity of Indonesians, nearly 85 percent of voters cast their ballots for one of four major parties. So evenly matched were these parties, and so grounded in historical social and regional divisions, that the parliament was essentially unable to function. Consensus of these major parties was essential in order to pass any legislation at all. The Indonesians called the system suara bulat, or "round vote." It allowed parties to register disagreements in a footnote while voting for the bill.

This four-way split was repeated in the provincial and national elections in1957. But regional strengths allowed some decision-making in these bodies.

The bulk of support for both the Nationalist Party backed by President Sukarno and the Communist Party came from the heavily populated island of Java, exacerbating debate in the national parliament. The two Muslim parties - Masjumi and Nahdlatul Ulama - had been united until 1952 and, on the whole, didn't compete for votes: Sumatra, Sulewesi, and West Java supported Masjumi, while Central and East Java backed Nahdlatul Ulama.

Sukarno denounced the chaos created by the competing parties as "free-fight liberalism," and argued that the very idea of opposition as enshrined in Western democratic thought "does not agree with the Indonesian soul." In July 1959 he succeeded in obtaining parliamentary support for his concept of Guided Democracy and a return to the original 1945 Constitution with its all-powerful presidency. Parties were transmuted into functional groups except for Masjumi and the Socialists, which were banned.

No one wants a return to the 1950s chaos of party confrontations and parliamentary stalemate. Everyone rejects the present system of autocratic control.

Haste may only repeat a troubled history. A call for elections, with no new procedures, would likely repeat one of these models. Instead, an electoral commission should immediately be established; a date for the national elections should be set. In the interim, an open and free debate in the country will steer the Habibie government toward a sound democratic system between these two dangers of chaos or control.

* Irene Tinker is a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley. Millidge Walker, her husband, is professor emeritus at the School of International Service, American University in Washington. They have studied local elections and government in Indonesia since 1957.

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