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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

DEMOCRACY MEETS ANARCHY

A political tussle stirs trouble in Central Java

By Robin Paul Ajello And Dewi Loveard/Pekalongan


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
FOR THE MOST PART, the machete boys stayed home, and the posture-perfect men in sunglasses made only rare appearances during the landmark Indonesian election. Still the campaign itself was marred by widespread, if isolated, thuggery and intimidation. Not from the military (at least outside restive East Timor and Aceh) but from supporters of the 48 contesting parties. And while the election proceeded relatively benignly, in Central Java, the nation's heartland, the battle for votes between two Muslim parties stirred up trouble, pitting neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend.

Islamic preachers, or kyai, who wield formidable power in the towns and villages, picked sides and spoke at party rallies. One provocation from them and out came the rocks and knives. The preachers often told people how to vote. "We have to follow our kyai's instructions," said one shopkeeper from Pekalongan, a town in Central Java. "I had no choice but to obey him."

Clashes were an almost daily occurrence between the National Awakening Party (PKB) of Abdurrahman Wahid, leader of the nation's largest Mulsim organization, and the more conservative United Development Party (PPP). Wahid's secular politics and tie-up with Megawati Sukarnoputri, a woman, did not go down well with Islamic traditionalists. At campaign rallies, kyai mounted personal attacks on party leaders. Afterward, supporters of both organizations would take it to the streets - trading stones, burning cars and torching homes.

PPP kyai accused rival party supporters of eating pork, taboo for devout Muslims. Others accused voters who switched allegiance from the PPP to the PKBof being infidels - meaning, in their view, it was no longer sinful to take the traitors' lives. Wahid's lieutenants tried to contain the situation by telling their followers not to condemn other organizations because there was already a party "that specializes in condemning others." Keeping a lid on the passions was not easy because if a house was looted or torched, its owners would blame supporters of rival parties - even if there was no proof. Rumors flew, petty matters were blown out of proportion, and people got hurt.

Before the official campaign even began in May, rumors emerged that a PKB kyai had defamed a regional PPP leader in Central Java. After a religious meeting in Pekalongan, PPP members confronted PKB supporter Rahmanto in the street. The menacing crowd ordered him to repeat his kyai's rumored insult. He refused and saw a man getting set to swing a machete in his direction; Rahmanto dodged the blow and made his escape. Before long, another rumor was making the rounds: Rahmanto had been badly injured and was in hospital. Soon, inflamed PKB supporters were hurling rocks at the homes of PPP followers. Rahmanto tried to calm them down but was himself struck by a flying stone. Eventually the police intervened and took him by car to his community with the aim of showing everyone he was uninjured. "I became a superstar," says Rahmanto, "but for the wrong reasons."

The myriad rumors and tit-for-tat revenge have undermined the traditional equilibrium of provincial towns and left people suspicious and traumatized. People like Haji Hamzah, 36, who remains shocked by what happened one night a week or so before the election. His wife was telling him they should make an effort to stay friendly with the neighbors since his family was among the few local PKB followers. As his wife spoke, Hamzah spotted an armed mob heading for his house. He was so scared he grabbed his two kids and rushed into the back yard, shoving a cloth into the mouth of the youngest to prevent her from crying out. As Hamzah watched his house burn, the mob from next door searched his back yard.

Hamzah and his family were lucky; they eluded their neighbors and extinguished the fire. Still, three of their cars were reduced to shells, the TV was destroyed and the curtains burned. Hamzah sent his wife and kids to his parents' house, not far away. "I know my neighbors very well," he says. "Now it's as if we never met. All because of political rivalry."

By the end of the campaign, parties were ignoring orders to rally on certain days - an official plan to avoid trouble. Police were out in force. A good thing because supporters showed up for rallies carrying stones and knives hidden in newspapers. In Kudus, another small town in Central Java, Dulrachman was riding his motorbike in a PKB rally when he was stopped by PPP youth. Without warning, one of them struck at Dulrachman with a knife. "Fortunately," he says, "my kyai filled me with magical immunity to weapons." So proud was Dulrachman, that he went to his party office to brag. Rather than be impressed, his audience was furious and descended on the PPP office to demand an explanation for the attack. Dulrachman wished he'd kept his mouth shut.

On the last day of the campaign, Hariyanto, a first-time voter from Pekalongan, had his head shaved - leaving only the initials PKB. He painted his face PKB green. He invented a dance to a PKB song. It wasn't long before he attracted the attention of PPP thugs. Pretty soon Hariyanto was in a river rubbing off the green dye. He got a barber to get rid of the PKB initials. "I lost 50,000 rupiah and became bald," he says. "What a life." At least he is alive to talk about it.


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