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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

HISTORY IN THE MAKING

Only a slow vote count threatens to spoil Indonesia's free and triumphant elections

By Sangwon Suh and Jose Manuel Tesoro/Jakarta


Indonesia's Elections: History in the Making Decision '99 Only a slow vote can spoil Indonesia's free and triumphant elections

The Parallel View Flashback to the 1955 ballot

'I will be the one. Why not?' Abdurrahman Wahid wants to be president

Democracy Meets Anarchy A political tussle stirs trouble in Central Java

The Election That Wasn't Most in Aceh were too frightened to vote

Money Talked, But How Loudly? Accusations fly that Golkar and others misused funds to woo voters
AMAR IS CONFUSED. The 64-year-old resident of Situlampa village, West Java, is about to cast his ballot in Indonesia's first free elections in over four decades, but he is discovering that things are not as simple as they used to be. Now that he is no longer obliged to vote for the ruling party Golkar, he is unsure which of the numerous contesting groups to plump for. His daughters, though, are happy enough with their new-found opportunity and talk of voting almost as if they are picking a new dress. "I want to try something new," says Tati, 35. Her 42-year-old sister Oya adds: "If it's good, we'll continue. If not, we'll switch next time."

Welcome to Indonesia's celebration of democracy. Amar's dilemma and his daughters' levity are simply a small part of the myriad feelings and emotions that have been bubbling up in the days surrounding the historic June 7 parliamentary polls. As more than 110 million Indonesians descended on voting stations to participate in the country's freest electoral exercise since 1955, euphoria, hope, nostalgia, pride and, yes, confusion all intermingled to form a dizzying palette of sensations not seen in Indonesia - or, for that matter, in Asia - for a long time. Across the country, there has been a palpable sense that this is a new beginning and that Indonesians are holding their destiny in their own hands.

Dudi Romansa, a 24-year-old unemployed university graduate in West Java, recalls the last elections, held just two years ago. "Free and secret was merely a slogan," he says. Votes were checked against names and those who did not vote for Golkar were singled out. "If we voted for other parties, we were summoned and given a warning." A voter like Harjolukito, a 74-year-old former independence fighter, was not going to take it anymore. At the polling booth in his Central Java village on June 7, he motioned for one of the election monitors to come and help him. In a loud whisper, he said: "Please vote for anything other than the party that has betrayed my struggle. I am confused; there are too many parties this time. My eyes are blurred and I can't see anymore. But you have to do it here in front of the public, so you will not cheat me by voting for that yellow one [Golkar]."

This time Golkar is merely one of 48 parties vying for 462 places in the 700-seat People's Consultative Assembly. The Assembly is to select the country's president in November, though that may well occur earlier. So these elections are merely the first step on the road to determining Indonesia's next leader. If no single party secures a majority, then expect plenty of vigorous horse-trading in the weeks ahead. But whatever the final outcome, the polls already mark a break from the days of Golkar's monopoly on power under Suharto's New Order. "I'm proud," says 55-year-old Suherman, a middle-class resident of West Jakarta, "that we can show our aspirations in this way."

What has struck observers is the obvious enthusiasm and dedication of Indonesians in organizing, running and participating in the elections. Of the 127 million eligible voters, about 92% registered themselves to vote - an amazing figure given that with many Indonesians living in hard-to-reach areas, participating in the electoral process requires considerable time and effort. The two scourges of Indonesian politics - violence and vote-buying - were not absent from the scene (see Democracy Meets Anarchy and Money Talked, But How Loudly?), but they were not as blatant or prominent as in years past.

The Indonesians' commitment to making these elections work also manifested itself in the building and maintenance of the 320,000 polling stations across the archipelago (Jakarta alone accounted for more than 10,000). President B.J. Habibie may have cast his ballot at the spruce, well-equipped station in his exclusive neighborhood, but for most Indonesians, exercising the right to vote meant a large dose of energy, even ingenuity, as they struggled with limited means. For example, residents of Setiabudi Tengah Road in South Jakarta received just 80,000 rupiah (about $10) from the central government to set up their polling booths. But the people chipped in to come up with the rest of the money, which amounted to 2 million rupiah (about $250).

In some areas, improvisations were the order of the day. People often built the booths from rickety lumber and covered them with someone's old batik or bedspread. Residents of poorer neighborhoods built booths like market stalls with wood, tarpaulin, rice sacks and even leaves. In the Chinese district of Glodok, barbed-wire barricades - plentiful in the wake of last year's race riots - were used to demarcate the polling area.

All in all, it seemed as if Indonesians had collectively decided that these elections were special and that they would do all they could to make them happen. "You really feel it; it is adem [cool, calm]," says Marsum, a neighborhood chief in South Jakarta. "The atmosphere is very different."

Even the ethnic Chinese have been getting into the act. To be sure, the community still has not fully recovered from the riots. Some complain that nothing has changed since those traumatic days. "There is still discrimination," says Cahyadi Juhana as he points to the rubble that used to be his Jakarta electronics shop before the riots. "We the Chinese couldn't get credits from the cooperatives. Cooperatives are only for Indonesians."

Still, the famously apolitical Chinese have formed their own parties for the elections. Mainstream parties have also been trying to woo the Chinese vote; some of them have even staged the once-banned lion dance during their campaigns. "Things may change in the future," admits Juhana. "The new generation has a different way of thinking. Many of them have been overseas; they are more open."

The fresh atmosphere of political involvement reflects the renewed hopes of Indonesians - their deep-seated desire for change and a better future that moves away from the excesses and abuses of Golkar. Says 45-year-old Jakarta resident Yoko Santoso: "The most important thing is that there can be change, that the government is not like the New Order."

Consider the mood in North Meruya, a middle-class area in West Jakarta. There, as in every polling station, a public counting of the vote began immediately after balloting had closed. People cheered and clapped whenever the local election-committee members chalked up a vote for an opposition party. Votes for the ruling party, however, were greeted with jeers and catcalls. Whenever a Golkar ballot was held up, the crowd shouted: "Rotten!"

Those who did not vote No.33 - the party number for Golkar - may get their wishes yet. When this Asiaweek issue went to press June 9, with about 6% of the ballots counted, opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P by its Indonesian initials) was the front-runner with 39% share of the vote. Another opposition party, the National Awakening Party (PKB) of Islamic leader Abdurrahman Wahid, garnered 21%. Golkar was third with about 16%. The United Development Party and the National Mandate Party (PAN) of Muslim intellectual Amien Rais had 9% and 6% respectively. The dismal performance so far of Rais's party reflects its youth, and perhaps that the majority of Indonesians may not be ready for its brand of idea-driven politics.

Though Indonesia appears headed toward an opposition victory, matters are hardly certain. The sampling of the vote is tiny, and there have been concerns over the slowness of the vote counting. Virtually all the many international observers deemed the elections largely free and fair, but one worry is that local officials, who are responsible for sending in the final count from their areas, might be tampering with the results. (The civil service, after all, is a stronghold of Golkar.) On June 9, John Morgan, head of the European Union's monitoring team, expressed his concerns to the press: "The period of transfer from the written form of results to the computerized one is the most vulnerable to fraudulent misuse, distortion and false counting."

Even without resorting to fraud, Golkar could well slowly close the gap with the PDI-P as the results trickle in over the coming days. Though despised in Jakarta and other urban centers of Java, the ruling party retains a measure of popularity in the countryside and the Outer Islands. "We reckon that we will get 50% to 60% of the vote outside Java," says Golkar chief Akbar Tandjung. Jiji Kusni, a sociologist at Palangkaraya Christian University in Central Kalimantan, suspects that this may have something to do with money politics. In addition, he says, "during the New Order, there was political 'stupidification.' Suharto gave the carrot and stick to the people." The carrot was, of course, development - in the form of electricity, water, roads. The stick was military force, or what Indonesians call politik gebuk ("clobber politics").

Kusni's points are underscored in a West Java mountain district where the voters are firmly pro-Golkar. "In these parts, Golkar still has a good name," says Vivid, a radio announcer and graphic designer. In a neighboring village, Kuraisin, a 57-year-old mother of seven, concurs: "They gave us food, gave us work. Do we really want to scratch out the record and start from zero?" Nearby, someone has scrawled a slogan on the side of a truck: "Reform = Hard to get rice."

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