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Free election marks crossroads for Indonesia JAKARTA - Six years into the uncertainties of multiparty democracy, Indonesians are electing a new legislature Monday after a campaign shadowed by nostalgia for two former authoritarian rulers -- one dead, the other disgraced. President Megawati Sukarnoputri's government is struggling with economic weakness, secessionist rebellions and the emergence of Muslim terrorists. But there is little debate on economic policy or Muslim extremism, critical though these issues are to this sprawling country of 210 million people scattered across 17,000 islands.
In this second free election in the world's most populous Muslim nation, few parties have coherent platforms or policy proposals, so choices come down to personalities and history. There is a wistfulness for a time when it seemed easier to put food on the table -- for the five decades of strongman rule, first by founding President Sukarno and then by Gen. Suharto, the man who ousted him. Darianti Sian, who sells rice cakes in a garbage-strewn slum in central Jakarta, was 20 when Sukarno was overthrown in a 1966 coup during which500,000 leftists were killed.
"My parents loved Sukarno, so I will follow my parents and love his daughter," Sian said. She was referring to Megawati, one of three Sukarno daughters who head rival political parties with candidates in the election. A Suharto daughter leads yet another of the country's multitude of parties. All four are playing on the memories of their fathers. At a Jakarta stadium last weekend, 100,000 supporters roared when Megawati raised a clenched fist and shouted, "Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!" -- Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! -- the famous rallying cry of her father, who died in 1970 under house arrest.
And while popular unrest over an economic slump and corruption ended Suharto's 32-year rule in 1998, his daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana is greeted with shouts of "Long live Suharto!" wherever she campaigns. At 82, Suharto lives freely in Jakarta despite several unsuccessful attempts to prosecute him. Besides choosing legislators, the election will help determine the shape of the presidential election scheduled for July 5 -- the first time Indonesians will vote directly for a president instead of having lawmakers do it.
Any party winning at least 3 percent of Monday's votes can enter a candidate to challenge Megawati's bid for a second 5-year term. Suharto's old party, Golkar, which says it does not want a return to authoritarianism, and Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, are expected to dominate the 550-seat legislature. Both parties are secular, and the election will almost certainly reaffirm the commitment to secularism that has held sway since Islamic parties failed to enshrine religious-based law in a 1945 constitution.
But the five main Islamic parties are not likely to suffer the kind of blistering defeat their colleagues did in neighboring Malaysia on March 21. Opinion polls indicate the religious parties will win about a third of the votes, which is about what they hold now, and may even gain some ground. A more conservative brand of Islam has made inroads since Suharto's ouster. And the Southeast Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah was blamed for the October 2002 nightclub bombings on the island of Bali that killed 202 people and a blast at the Marriott hotel in Jakarta that killed 12 in August.
Ansyaad Mbai, the top anti-terror official at the security ministry, told The Associated Press that Jemaah Islamiyah members have recently been in contact with al-Qaida. Operatives outside Indonesia and are plotting attacks aimed at disrupting Monday's polls. Yet Muslim fundamentalism remains a hard sell in Indonesia, where Islamic practice often blends with elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and animism. Hidayat Nur Wahid exemplifies the balancing act performed by Muslim politicians. His Party of Justice and Prosperity wants Islam to govern Indonesia, but when he recently talked to fishermen in central Java, he didn't mention religion.
Instead, he denounced the government for allowing Thai fisherman to "steal our sea resources" and he handed out subsidized kerosene, underlining his party's focus on the economy and clean government. "Exclusivity is not the name of the game," Amien Rais, the only Muslim-oriented politician given a chance of unseating Megawati in July, said in an interview. "When you turn Islam into a political ideology, most people here don't buy it."
Since the advent of democracy, Indonesia has been plagued by erratic government, several wars of secession and a violent Islamic fringe that has catapulted the country onto the front lines of the U.S.-led war on terrorism. The government has arrested more than 100 Islamic militants. But Megawati has said little about terrorism. Despite international pressure, her government has not outlawed Jemaah Islamiyah or shut down radical Islamic boarding schools that are accused of breeding new militants.
Speaking out against terrorists is politically risky. Voters are quick to brand anyone who does so a lackey of President Bush, whose policies on Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel are highly unpopular here. That's good news for Jemaah Islamiyah's alleged spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, who is scheduled to be released from prison in April despite protests from Washington and other governments that claim he is deeply involved in terrorism. He is doing time for minor offenses after Indonesian courts cleared him of treason and terrorism. But last week a senior Indonesian intelligence official told AP that police had uncovered a letter proving that Bashir was Jemaah Islamiyah's leader -- enough evidence, the official said, to bring new charges against him.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said authorities were reluctant to offend Muslim sentiment and he was leaking the letter to put pressure on them to keep Bashir behind bars. Critics fault Megawati for not putting Indonesia's notoriously brutal military squarely under civilian control and for allowing it to conduct major offensives against separatist rebels in Aceh and Papua provinces rather than pursuing peace talks. After the loss of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, which became an independent state in 2002, Indonesia has adopted a tough stance on other regions trying to follow the East Timor example.
Corruption is a widespread concern, as is the economy. Megawati has stabilized the currency and the economy has grown 3 percent to 4 percent a year, but economists say 6 percent to 7 percent is needed to absorb all the young people entering the work force. Indonesia's army of unemployed -- 40 million and growing -- is a social time bomb. "Her appeal is to the common people," said political analyst Dewi Anwar Fortuna, "but it is the common people who are most affected by her lackluster economic performance."

Posted in Elections @ 04 April 2004 00:02 CET by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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