US ads in Indonesia remind voters to choose freely

Unaccustomed to choice, more than 100 million across the archipelago

Rice farmers across Java, the most densely populated island of Indonesia, tend to smile in embarrassment when asked to describe platforms of the parties running for parliament today. But there's a reason for their ignorance: Few of the 48 parties have offered details of substance, focusing instead on noisy rallies that are meant as a show of strength.

There's one message that's been heard loud and clear, however, and it's proving most effective against the ruling party.

Financed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a series of 12 slick television ads shows Indonesians across the archipelago stressing the fact that they, for the first time in 44 years, are free to vote as they please.

That message runs in the face of 32 years of authoritarian rule under former president Suharto, who gave the dominant Golkar Party control of the airwaves, the local governments, and the ballot boxes. In a country that is fed up with government corruption and where support for opposition parties is widespread, free choice holds strong appeal.

"Now we can chose whatever we like," says one farmer's wife in Blanakan, northern Java, as she mixes a cabbage salad that she hopes to sell in her roadside stand. "A woman can even vote differently from her husband."

USAID is also funding seminars that teach election rules to party members. These representatives will be watching closely as the voting cards are handed out, and especially when the ballot boxes are opened. In the past, officials would whisk away the boxes for counting in district centers, leaving villagers suspicious that the truck might never get there.

The impact of the commercials and seminars could prove disastrous for Golkar. Its chairman, Akbar Tanjung, said last week the party expected 30 to 40 percent of the vote, compared to 72 percent garnered in the 1997 elections, but polls predict between 10 and 20 percent.

Villagers interviewed proved remarkably aware that their village head, teachers, and other civil servants - who used to be obliged to vote for Golkar - were now banned from pushing any party.

"In the past the village was afraid of the village chief," says Matori Abdul Djalil, chairman of the National Awakening Party (PKB). "Now the village chief is afraid of the village."

That does not mean every Indonesian is deciding for himself, however, a daunting challenge given the lack of substantive campaigning and limits of political awareness among the poor.

Many kiai, Islamic teachers who run religious schools, support Mr. Matori's PKB because Nahdlatul Ulama, the country's largest Muslim group, has told them to. "Now we chose for ourselves but we are poorly educated," says Imron, a rice farmer in Slijeg, northern Java. "We look to our leader for guidance - the kiai."

Matori confidently predicts that his party will win 30 percent of the vote and adds he expects a coalition with Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDIP) to obtain a majority in parliament.

Further south, however, the hold of Nahdlatul Ulama is not nearly as strong. There, villages observe a more nominal Islam that absorbs Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. As in the last free elections, in 1955, many of these villagers intend to vote for the party that is now most associated with founding president Sukarno, who held these beliefs high.

Today that party is the PDIP. Ms. Megawati is Mr. Sukarno's daughter, which helps explain why her party appears set to sweep Java.

The perception of Golkar's weakness could hasten its fall because, when in doubt, Java's villagers appear content to go with the flow rather than stand out in the crowd. "I'll just see who is winning, and that's the party I'll vote for," one farmer says.

Voting Golkar may even appear risky. In cities such as Cirebon, the ruling party's offices have been stoned, and its flags have been torn down in many cities.

"We must have faith in ourselves," read a seemingly despairing Golkar flier handed out at a meeting on the island of Borneo. "The anti-Golkar opinion is a creation of part of the mass media. The reality is different."

Golkar, which still dominates the government, can claim success in ensuring a peaceful election. A series of government ads urges Indonesians to respect one another during the campaign and avoid violence. Compared with the deadly ethnic and religious riots that rocked Indonesia in previous months, the election campaign passed remarkably peacefully. "Whatever happens, the main thing is that it is peaceful," says the farmer's wife in Blanakan. "And then we'll get some relief from this crisis."

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