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JAKARTA - Indonesia's old guard is eyeing a comeback in Monday's parliamentary elections, with nostalgia for the stability and economic growth of ousted autocrat Suharto's rule seen returning his former party to prominence. Around 90 percent of the 147 million eligible voters in the world's most populous Muslim nation are expected to take part in the election, billed as the biggest and most complex one-day vote the world has ever seen.
Tens of thousands of police and soldiers will be on duty at polling stations and strategic locations in cities and villages around the vast archipelago, amid fears that supporters of rival parties may clash or Muslim militants may disrupt proceedings. Opinion polls show Golkar, the former political vehicle of Suharto, leading incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesia Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) in a race seen as a key test of the country's nascent democracy.
They also show for the first time Megawati trailing in the presidential race set for July, to former chief security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the candidate of a smaller party. "This may be the watershed point," said William Liddle, an Indonesian expert at Ohio State University visiting for the election. "Support for Megawati's party has been going down for some time. Now her personal popularity is also dropping."
The latest Indonesia Survey Institute poll showed Golkar winning 23.2 percent of the parliamentary vote, with Megawati's party, now the strongest in the legislature, taking 17.5 percent. A separate poll by a U.S.-based group had Golkar with 22.2 percent and PDI-P 11.5 percent in a field of two dozen parties. Ballot boxes and ballots were still on their way Saturday to some remote parts of the world's fourth most populous country. Television pictures showed burros carrying election materials strapped to their backs across jungle streams in mountainous areas of Sulawesi, some 870 miles east of Jakarta.
In Aceh in the far northwest and Papua in the far east, both sites of simmering separatist movements, a lack of election material could mean a delayed vote in isolated areas. But Nazarrudin Sjamsuddin, chief of the General Election Commission (KPU), told Reuters: "We have 585,000 polling stations. The polling stations that we think will have problems are only a half of a percent of the total."

Terror sidelined

The parliamentary vote marks only the second time Indonesians have taken part in a democratic ballot since Suharto's overthrow in a popular uprising in 1998. The subsequent presidential election will be the country's first direct vote for that post. As the polls point to nowhere near a majority for any party, Monday's results are expected to be followed by a scramble to build coalitions before the presidential vote.
Although bomb blasts have killed hundreds of people in Indonesia in recent years, the issues of terrorism and the country's militant fringe have largely been sidelined as candidates seek to avoid inflaming Islamic sensibilities. Instead, in the rare moments when issues emerge at mass rallies, candidates have spoken about the economy lagging behind levels needed to create jobs. "What people are thinking is that Golkar was the political party that provided them with economic growth of 6-7 percent a year for all of those years under Suharto," said Liddle.
Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a political analyst and adviser to a former president, said that despite promises, Megawati's government had failed to deliver. "I think the government has done relatively well with stability and the macro-economic indicators are positive, but the government has not been able to go that extra mile in pursuing reform and eradicating corruption, ensuring rule of law and especially in providing jobs."
Standard Chartered Indonesia economist Fauzi Ichsan said if the market is happy with the elections, money will start flowing back into the capital markets. "But for foreign direct investment to come, I think the country needs more than just political certainty." For that, the new government will have to deal with such issues as legal uncertainty, regional autonomy, and labor regulations, he said.

Tired of change

As Indonesians head for polling booths to elect 550 legislators and more than 7,000 other local representatives, many are experiencing change fatigue, some analysts said. "People long for a period of stability and consolidation," said Rizal Mallarangeng, director of the local Freedom Institute. While seeking to distance itself from Suharto's excesses, Golkar has stressed stability and its record in government, especially on the economy. That makes an attractive platform in a country where half the people live on less than $2 a day.
However, in terms of policy, little separates Golkar from most of its secular and Muslim-based rivals. "One does not really see what the parties stand for on any particular issue," said Anwar. "There has not been any discussion on terrorism. Everybody talks about corruption, claims they are opposed to corruption, while being party to corrupt practices. At the moment, frankly, I don't see any differences."
More optimistic was James Kallman, head of Moores Rowland business consultants in Indonesia, who said the indirect election of presidents beholden to parliament to stay in power had forced compromises and stood in the way of strong leadership. "It's going to be totally different because the next president will be directly elected and they will claim a mandate from the people, and that makes a big difference."

Posted in Elections @ 03 April 2004 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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