Indonesia's explosion of choices

June 7 parliamentary election has risks of continuing violence and

In a sky white with heat and haze, 48 flags flutter atop Indonesia's Election Commission headquarters. Far below, Sukria glances up at them as bean-curd cakes sizzle in his deep-fry vending cart. "I can't really tell you what parties they all belong to," he says of the flags. Each one represents a group contesting next month's elections; 45 of those parties are brand new. "I can't even tell the parties apart," Mr. Sukria chuckles. "But I do know who I'm voting for - and I can't tell you that either."

Sukria's trip to the polls on June 7 will be part of a historic journey for Indonesia. Though President B.J. Habibie has governed for the past year, the vote will formally punctuate the end of former President Suharto's 32-year dictatorship and launch the country toward a democratic future.

The transition involves some risk. Beyond worries about poll-disrupting violence, there are concerns that the election commission simply won't be ready in time. This matters not only to Indonesia, but to neighbors near and far as well. The oil-rich archipelago sprawls across 3,000 miles of strategic shipping lanes plied by tankers and US aircraft carriers. If the election is a success, it will make Indonesia the third-largest democracy in the world.

"I don't know how it's going to turn out," muses Sukria, who has only one name, like many Indonesians. "I just hope the next government will be clean and good."

It's been almost 40 years since Indonesians have had much of a choice in politics. Former President Sukarno, Indonesia's founding father, ended a period of parliamentary democracy in 1959. Suharto took up the reins in 1966 and staged "festivals of democracy" every five years. These ensured that one party got the majority vote and offered one presidential candidate: Suharto. He offered Indonesians economic progress; the price was acceptance of his authoritarian rule.

When Asia's economic crisis began in 1997, the bargain looked less attractive. By 1998, Indonesia's currency had fallen so far that food prices had tripled, and hungry, frustrated people began rioting. Students took up the cry, calling for an end to the corruption and nepotism that fueled the crisis, and a new leader to pull them out of it. Now the festivals of democracy are giving way to the real thing, a prospect one local resident likens to the lid of a steam kettle popping off at full boil.

Sixty percent of the country's 200 million citizens have registered to vote. Their ballots go to fill 462 seats in Parliament; the military automatically receives another 38. The Consultative Assembly, which meets every five years to choose the president, consists of the 500 members of Parliament and 200 others. Previously filled with Suharto appointees, those 200 seats will now go to provincial representatives and groups the government feels are underrepresented.

The assembly will choose a president in November, but backroom coalition-building will have begun long before then. The entire process is so complicated that questions about the ballot printing still aren't settled.

"The level of complexity they're trying to achieve in such a short time is mind-boggling," says a Western diplomat, who requested anonymity. "Just in terms of practicality, it'll be hard to achieve what they want." Election-related violence has erupted between parties accusing each other of poaching voters. Analysts unanimously expect more, but say it's not likely to be as damaging as last year's upheaval.

And there is a buoyant mood at Jakarta's sidewalk kiosks that display political flags and souvenirs - including phone cards and kitchen clocks. Some commentators say the political landscape doesn't look all that new. "I think we're going back to the 1950s to some extent," says Hadi Soesastro, executive director of the Center of Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. He notes that then, as now, there were Islamic parties, nationalistic parties, and parties based on leftist platforms. In the 1950s, the left-wing party was Communist; today, there are labor parties and socialist groups.

The 1950s diversity made consensus-building difficult, and political unpredictability along with a shaky economy led Sukarno to introduce the authoritarian "guided democracy" that Suharto basically continued.

But Mr. Soesastro doesn't see a repeat of that scenario. "Now you also have broad-based parties that are trying to bring together as wide a support base as possible," he says. "If they do well, I see this group as the embryo for modern political parties."

Indonesia has also matured, notes Barbara Harvey, a visiting scholar at the University of Arizona in Phoenix. Education levels have risen dramatically, she says, and now "there's also a sense of what a civic society should be.... Now you have environmental groups, labor unions - groups that aren't tied to government and that have a sense of what democracy is," she says.

Faisal Abdillah is part of this movement. The engineering student is part of a group at Jakarta's Trisakti University that plans to monitor the election. Like many students, he distrusts Golkar, the ruling party associated with Suharto.

Golkar is still likely to do well, particularly in rural areas. The party has a strong network, and Suharto required the military and bureaucrats to support it. Those ties may be hard to break. "Suharto planted a culture of bribery and he still has people from top to bottom," Mr. Abdillah says. "They'll try to defend his order. The election is a good start, but we don't know yet if it's the first step or a daydream."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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