Indonesia's Tainted Election

— Carolus Irawan Saptono

SRI BINTANG PAMUNGKAS, former member of parliament for the United Development Party (PPP), one of the three officially-recognized parties in Indonesia, was arrested in early March for advocating a boycott of the 29 May general elections.

Along with two other leaders of the Indonesian United Democratic Party, a party not recognized by the government, he could face the death penalty for the boycott campaign. In Jakarta and Bandung (the capital city of the province of West Java) a number of students were detained for distributing leaflets urging the same thing.

This is a phenomenon of Indonesian politics that has been practiced for more than thirty years under the New Order government of President Suharto. A citizen's right to vote, or to choose not to do so, is protected by law. But encouraging others not to vote is deemed a political wrong and a criminal offense.

As the general elections approach, Indonesia is witnessing a replay of a familiar theme. The New Order gov<->ernment prepares repressive measures towards those who oppose the elections and unfair restrictions on the two parties that will, alongside Golkar, the government party, take part in the May elections.

Prior to the 1992 elections two students from Diponegoro University in Semarang, Central Java, were arrested because they campaigned for Golongan Putih (the White Group). The concept of Golput, as the protest vote is more commonly known, was started by a well known academic Arief Budiman prior to the 1971 elections. Golput is either not voting at all or punching the symbols of all three possible choices, thereby invalidating the vote.

But this year, discontent with the government -- in particular its meddling in the internal affairs of one of the two opposition parties, the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) -- is leading political commentators to conclude that Golput's share of the votes will increase. If this proves true, it will demonstrate a clear rejection of the government's consistent efforts to restrict the ability of Indonesian citizens to participate in a meaningful way in the country's political life.

Since the New Order government under Suharto came to power in the wake of an alleged attempted "Communist" coup in 1965 -- resulting in the murder of hundreds of thousands of people known or suspected of supporting the Indonesian Communist Party, up to then a legal political party -- the political space for parties has been increasingly narrowed. The 1971 elections saw the number of parties permitted to take part in elections restricted to ten. After the military-supported government party, Golkar, had been formed and swept 62.8% of the vote in the 1971 elections, the government merged the nine other parties into two.

Four Muslim parties were merged into the PPP and the Christian and Nationalist parties were joined together in the PDI. The restrictions imposed on the two parties, coupled with the problems inherent in merging previously independent parties with differing agendas, have ensured that these parties have enjoyed only very limited success in the four general elections that have taken place since. Thus the government has effectively denied both the PPP and the PDI any possibility of de<->veloping into real political contenders.

Muslims may well account for 90% of the country's 200 million people but the PPP, the party associated with Islam, has never won more than 30% of the vote. Before the 1987 elections, as part of the government's policy to make the state ideology, Pancasila, the founding basis of all organizations, whether social, religious or political, the PPP was obliged to change its party symbol. In place of its hitherto strongly religious symbol -- the representation of the shrine in the Great Mosque of Mecca -- the secular symbol of a star, representing one of the five principles of Pancasila was substituted.

These two fundamental changes to the PPP's image severely hampered the party's ability to represent itself as an Islamic party, with all the benefits that this brings, effectively distancing the PPP from its traditional support base.

The PDI meanwhile, which includes the Indo<->nesian National Party, the largest party of the Sukarno era, has never won more than 15% of the vote. The smallest of the three officially recognized parties, the PDI stunned the government when, under the leadership of Surjadi, it increased the number of seats it won in the 1987 elections by sixteen, and then won another sixteen in 1992.

The PDI's striking parliamentary gains -- albeit not representing any serious threat to the continuing dominance of Golkar -- were not something the government was prepared to ignore. 1993 saw Surjadi toppled from the party leadership by his political opponents during the party congress, in a move supported by the government.

But this political engineering backfired. For, to the surprise of many, it was Megawati Sukarnoputri, first president Sukarno's eldest daughter, who emerged as the new leader of the nationalist/Christian PDI. Her appearance on the political stage caused considerable disquiet within the government, in view of the broad support she could expect throughout the country as the daughter of the charismatic founder of the Republic of Indonesia.

The re-emergence of Sukarnoism that accompanied Megawati's rise also worried the government. Under her leadership the PDI could be expected to garner the sympathy from many groups who had previously supported Golkar, for example among farmers who make up the majority of voters.

A further cause for government concern is the allure Megawati holds for Indonesia's youth. Young people looking for a new national leadership represent some of her most vociferous supporters. And some 24 million young people will be eligible to vote for the first time in the 1997 elections.

The government cannot also be blind to the worrying precedents that have been set by women political leaders in other parts of Asia, and the way in which Megawati has been likened to powerful political counterparts such as Cory Aquino in the Philippines, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and the highly popular Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma.

The seriousness with which the authorities respond to such comparisons is exemplified by a statement made by the head of the armed forces' social and political affairs division, Lieutenant General Syarwan Hamid. He went so far as to accuse Megawati of wanting to act like Cory Aquino in order to bring down the government by people power.

The General added that he saw Abdurrahman Wahid, the influential leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama, a Muslim organization boasting some 30 million members, as Megawati's Cardinal Sin. (A lawsuit for slander filed by Megawati against Syarwan Hamid in connection with these remarks was settled out of court after he agreed to retract his statement.)

The government's concerns over Megawati appear to have reached a critical point when some of her supporters suggested that she be nominated for the 1998-2003 presidency. Despite the fact that the system for electing a president is such that a win for Megawati would be an impossibility, the suggestion itself was unprecedented.

President Suharto has never had to contest for the position, having been repeatedly re-elected by acclaim, and the idea of having an open challenger for the position appears to have been too much to be countenanced. The government's response was to use some of her political opponents to oust Megawati from the PDI leadership at an extraordinary party congress.

In an ironic twist, her replacement, appointed at the congress, was none other than Surjadi -- the man responsible for encouraging Megawati onto the political stage in the first place. He himself had experienced first hand government interference in party politics. Four years after his own replacement, however, it seems that Surjadi was deemed sufficiently malleable to be trusted to take on the task of leading the PDI.

The crisis in the PDI culminated in violence in July, 1996 with the attack on the PDI headquarters in Central Jakarta -- then being occupied by Megawati supporters -- by security forces and Surjadi supporters. There were deaths -- how many remains a source of contention -- and twenty-three Megawati supporters are still missing. Government buildings, banks and a number of cars were set on fire by angry Megawati supporters.

The result of this political meddling has been devastating to the party. There are now effectively two PDI factions. One, under the leadership of Megawati, is unrecognized by the government but has the support of the PDI masses. The government-recognized PDI, under Surjadi, has been given the right to contest the elections, while the government has banned Megawati's faction from participation.

The only winner from the split in the PDI will be the government and its party. Given that most Megawati supporters will choose not to vote at all, it is already clear that the votes for PDI under Surjadi will drop sharply. Yet even without government interference in the two non-government parties, the electoral system is such that Golkar's victory is a foregone conclusion.

Under the economic development ideology developed by the New Order government in the late 1960s, the regime declared that "political stability" was a prerequisite for economic development. To attain the New Order's economic goals, political organizations and activities must be restricted. At the same time the military, the defenders of national security and stability, would maintain a central role in political life.

The population as a whole, regarded as a "floating mass," is discouraged from involvement in politics except for a brief period prior to the five-yearly general elections, in theory so as to leave them free to assist the country's development as well as in order to ensure national stability. In practice this means that the PPP and the PDI are denied the right to be active in rural areas -- where 80% of the population live -- except for a few weeks prior to the elections.

Syamsudin Haris, a researcher at the government-sponsored research institute, the Indonesian Academy of Sciences, notes that these intensive efforts at depolitization and the denial of the right of political parties throughout the New Order period have resulted -- not surprisingly -- in the state becoming the one and only source of reference and legitimization for parties.

It is the state to whom parties are obliged to look, with respect to their founding principles, the development of party programs, the selection of parliamentary candidates, and so on. As Haris points out, government support for Golkar in the elections not only make the elections non-competitive but also becomes a means of legitimizing Golkar's overwhelming success.

Even though regulations do not require this, in practice, members of the Indonesian civil service are obliged to vote for Golkar. The military too is expected to support the government party. Hence, members of the civil and military bureaucracy who are present in villages on a day-to-day basis have endless possibilities for pressuring people to vote for the party.

There are many instances of local government officials forcing people, through a variety of means, to vote for Golkar, whose official color is yellow. Villagers, seeking to avoid conflict, usually do what the local government bureaucracy, backed by the military, demands.

Examples of intimidation and threats are plentiful throughout the period of the New Order. Before the 1971 elections, for example, only those who agreed to vote Golkar were permitted to enter a market in South Sulawesi. A regional member of parliament from another party who refused this demand was beaten up by the military. In another village around 100 people acknowledged having voted for the PPP, yet when the ballot box was opened there were only three votes for the party.

In the run up to the 1997 elections the most graphic display of not-so-subtle pressure on voters to choose Golkar has been the practice of "yellowization," centered primarily in Central Java. Months before the election campaign was due to officially begin, towns in the province were turned into seas of yellow as the local government administration ordered public property -- including buildings, telegraph poles, sidewalks, even trees -- painted yellow.

It's impossible for the two non-government parties to control the electoral fraud, because the government itself dominates the electoral institutions -- from the national General Election Institute, which oversees the entire electoral process and is headed by the Minister of Home Affairs, down to the local committees established to register voters and count the votes. Such a situation facilitates and encourages electoral fraud.The Committee for Registering Voters has responsibility for registering voters in villages. Its members are Golkar supporters who fail to register voters in areas with strong PDI or PPP support bases. The PPP and PDI leadership have protested, but to no avail.

The PDI never has enough volunteers to monitor the vote counting at each polling station. But there is also the documented case in 1992 when PPP monitors in West Sumatra were bound hand and foot and taken to the police station. They were beaten, interrogated and imprisoned for five days in order to prevent them from carrying out their duties.

The Minister of Information, Harmoko, is concurrently the Chairman of Golkar. Using state funds and facilities Harmoko is able to travel around Indonesia campaigning long before the campaigning period officially begins. Similar misuse of state funds and facilities resulting from the intertwining of Golkar in the bureaucracy and the military
are evident across the country, as vehicles and equipment owned by the military and government are used for Golkar's campaigns.

This is no recent phenomenon. After the 1977 elections, a well-known PPP politician commented that the elections were no more than a pantomime. The government wanted to ensure a division of votes of 60-30-10, to ensure that there is no way that there can be competition for Golkar. And so it has proved: In each of the following elections, in 1982, 1987 and 1992, they have swept into office with more than 60% of the vote.

This year Golkar's target is to win 70% of the vote. A remarkable development with respect to the forthcoming elections, however, has been the establishment of the Independent Election Monitoring Committee -- more commonly known by its Indonesian acronym, KIPP. This independent organization was formed by a number of intellectuals, journalists, students and NGO activists, and is headed by well-known journalist and former editor of one of the country's leading weeklies (until it was banned in 1994), Gunawan Mohamad.

KIPP is seeking to combat the largely hidden fraud that accompanies general elections by placing volunteers at each polling station -- in itself a monumental task in the world's fourth most populated nation. No organization like it has ever been established in Indonesia. While the government has not declared KIPP illegal, it has made known its dissatisfaction at its existence and has attempted to sap its strength.

Soon after KIPP was established, its Secretary General, human rights activist Mulyana Kusumah, was accused of having been involved (three decades earlier) with a since banned communist youth organization. In Indonesia accusations of communism are highly effective means of restricting people's ability to function politically. At the same time, in order to hamper their activities, a number of leaders of KIPP's regional branches have been intimidated.

KIPP has also suffered from the fact that some of the primary movers in KIPP are members of the People's Democratic Party (PRD) -- a party not recognized by the government -- which was itself the subject of a severe crackdown in the wake of the riots in Jakarta last July. PRD's predominantly student leadership was arrested and are currently standing trial charged with subversion, the maximum penalty for which is death.

There is no possibility of rescinding the relevant political and electoral laws; in fact one of the charges against the young PRD activists now on trial is that they called for an elimination of this legislation. It is difficult to know how undemocratic elections in Indonesia can be changed. In Indonesia the wry comment goes that Golkar wins out regardless of whether it wins in the elections.

ATC 68, May-June 1997

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <b> </b> <br> <br /> <a> </a> <em> </em> <strong> </strong> <cite> </cite> <code> </code> <ul> </ul> <ol> </ol> <li> </li> <dl> </dl> <dt> </dt> <dd> </dd> <div> </div> <img> <style> <font> </font> <blockquote> </blockquote> <hr>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.