Indonesia: Elections – First in 40 years

Election day in Indonesia – the first for 40 years in which parties could freely contend – had the atmosphere of a celebration. Coming one year after the overthrow of the Suharto dictatorship by a mass movement, it is clear that the hard-pressed masses took the opportunity to give the old ruling party, Golkar, an ignominious trouncing. In spite of the heavy weighting of the new constitution in favour of the military and the obvious dissatisfaction of the students with the progress of their revolution, Indonesia is now being dubbed the third biggest democracy in the world (after India and the USA).

But, after the second day of counting, concern is rising at the long delays in collecting the final figures with only 3% of the total declared. In a country of 13,000 islands, 116 million voters and ’inexperienced’ election officials, there will be ample scope for ’influencing’ the vote. Layers of the army and the old administration have little to fear from the presence of a few international observers like the ubiquitous ex-US president, Jimmy Carter but are fighting a losing battle to maintain the regime of Suharto’s successor, Habibie.

On voting day itself, there was little or no violence and only a little fraud (like the 30,000 pre-marked ballot papers discovered in one polling area!). In Aceh, independence fighters forced a number of polling stations to close and there will be attempts to hold a re-ballot at a future date. In East Timor and Ambon, where hundreds have been killed in the recent period, a genuine fear of going to the polling stations dissolved sufficiently to give a result similar to those elsewhere – a sweeping majority for those who stand against the party of the butcher dictator, Suharto.

According to preliminary accounts, it looks as if there was as much as an 80% turn-out.

No fewer than 48 parties were standing, each with their emblems on the ballot paper through which the voter had to punch a whole to indicate their preference. It had become clear in the run-up to the election, that the most popular party would be the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle, led by Megawati Sukarnopoutri. Her programme is vague – ’pro-poor’ but pro-capitalist. Much of her popularity stems from her being the daughter of the first president of an independent Indonesia, deposed in 1965 in a wave of violence by the hated Suharto. Jakarta was a sea of red – the party’s colour – when more than a million turned out for one of its many, technically illegal, election rallies. ’Megomania’ had gripped every small trader and small manufacturer – of T-shirts, badges, pens, bags, note-books – everything under the sun had her picture and party emblem on it!

Try as they might, even with offers of money and food to would-be voters, Golkar has obviously failed to get much more than 10 – 15%. "I took the money but still voted for Megawati" was the comment to journalists of many voters .

Queues formed at 8 in the morning at the polling stations and many were still full when they closed at 2pm – early enough for the count to be held publicly in the four hours of daylight that remained.

Whole families and communities turned out to vote many for the first time in their lives. They made a day of it, staying on to watch the count – cheering at the announcement of every vote for Megawati’s PDI-P and booing at every vote for the old ruling party of General Suharto. Election officials were even apologising as they announced the Golkar vote! The hated ex-dictator himself was seen on the world’s television screens arrogantly casting his vote and insisting on his democratic right to stay silent about how he had voted. Even in his luxury suburb of Jakarta – Menteng – however, his neighbours thumbed their noses at him as he went to the polls.

The PDI-P is claiming to have won as much as 40% of the vote. That of Gus Dur – the National Awakening party – seems to have over 20% and that of Amien Rais around 5%.

Megawati will no doubt form some kind of parliamentary coalition, but there will be big efforts made on the part of some of the most reactionary – in particular Islamic – elements outside it, to prevent her from becoming President later in the year. Attempts to defy the wishes of the majority could lead to new demonstrations on the streets of the big cities and a new impetus to a more radical movement.

The left-wing Peoples Democratic Party (PRD) fielded candidates in the elections to put forward its demands for real democracy and explain that the main struggle is outside parliament. While talking of socialism and the need for people’s committees to control the distribution of basic necessities, they stopped short of putting forward a fighting programme to end the rule of the big conglomerates through public ownership and real democracy of the workers and small peasants. They lay emphasis on the need for unity against the forces of the army and the president Habibie.

All the main parties, have pledged to honour the conditions laid down by the IMF and have no intention of struggling for an end to capitalism. The immediate rises on the stock and currency exchanges have indicated the capitalists’ satisfaction with the earliest results of the elections. But new tensions and new explosions are inevitable, especially in relation to the strivings of the different oppressed classes and peoples for control over their own lives. In the Indonesia of today, in which deep social and economic problems persist, the situation will still contain both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary trends.

The powerful state forces have been implicated in the recent inter-ethnic violence in the Molluccan Islands and other areas which have given rise to fears of national break-up and a descent into barbarism and chaos. They have also been behind the bloody attacks in Aceh and East Timor against those struggling to be free of Jakarta rule. The aspirations of these movements will be frustrated if Megawati continues, as she has done so far, to oppose their right to total independence. On a capitalist basis, it will be difficult to bring the army and the forces of reaction under control.

Following the defeat of the Suharto-Habibie ’New Order’ in the elections, the expectations and hopes of the mass of the population of Indonesia, with half their number living below the poverty line, will be enormous. New crises and new struggles are undoubtedly on the agenda, once the euphoria of this June’s election festival subsides.

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June 1999