Wed, 12 Mar 2003

Assuring fair elections

Barring unforeseen obstacles, it now seems that Indonesia is pretty well on its way toward holding its next general election as scheduled -- more or less. That, certainly, is cause for satisfaction, given the widespread fears -- "suspicions" might be a better word -- of deliberate stalling at certain points by certain factions during the debates in the House of Representatives in previous months.

At present two major political draft bills at least -- one on the general (legislative) election itself and another on the political party system -- have become law. It remains now for the national legislature to pass two more laws -- on the election of the country's president and vice president and on the composition of the House of Representatives (DPR), the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) and the Regional Representative Council (DPD).

So, on paper at least, things appear to be going pretty much as scheduled. In reality, though, the task ahead is still a tough one, tougher perhaps than the job that has already been done, and one that needs our fullest attention if the upcoming general and presidential elections next year are to throw off the maximum benefit for the growth of democracy in this country.

First, there is the fact to consider that all parties involved -- the major political parties, the government and the General Elections Committee (KPU) -- seem agreed that it would be best to hold the general election in either March or early in April next year at the latest. The point is that by Oct. 20 next year the incumbent president and vice president will have ended their terms in office and must be replaced.

That means that not only must the two remaining draft laws on the political system be deliberated and passed without delay; between the government, the legislature and KPU a host of technical details must be worked out and implemented. A census must be held and voters registered. Political parties and their candidates for the various legislative bodies must have their qualifications verified and listed. Ballots must be printed and ballot boxes provided. Voting booths must be set up and the necessary personnel, etcetera, etcetera.

If all that looks like child's play, consider that for that purpose about 60 different regulations and decrees must be drafted and implemented -- not so easy a task in a democracy in the process of learning, as Indonesians well know from recent experience. And let us not forget that Indonesia is the largest archipelagic country in the world, comprising, at the latest count, some 18,000 islands. In all, 16 different steps must be negotiated, from voter registration to the announcement of the country's new legislators and president- and vice president- elect.

Despite it all, Indonesians, and probably also the international community, have the highest expectations from next year's general election. For that reason, and even more importantly for the good of the future of democracy in this country, no effort should be spared to ensure that the elections will be truly fair and democratic -- a true "feast of democracy", in fact, whose quality and credibility is not in doubt.

To ensure that kind of quality and credibility, voter involvement in the whole process must be assured from beginning to end. That means, among other things, that voters must be fully informed about the procedures involved, their rights and responsibilities, and the candidates they might possibly vote for.

All that obviously takes money, a commodity that is currently in short supply in Indonesia. The last general election, in 1999, may serve as an example. Not only had the government to reach deep into the state coffers for that event, the international community also helped, through assistance from the UN Development Program. No such help will be available this time.

Furthermore, while the 1999 general election involved only a single stage -- the election of members of the House of Representatives and the People's Consultative Assembly -- the upcoming election in 2004 will be held in two stages: The first to elect the national legislature, and the second to elect the president and vice president. That, needless to say, means an inflated budget.

Nevertheless, a limited budget must not prevent us from assuring that the 2004 elections -- both legislative and presidential -- will be truly fair and credible. The only way we can make sure that will happen is by assuring transparency in the use of the available money. Judging by the state of affairs in both our bureaucracy and our society, that may not be an easy task to accomplish.

Yet, the course of democracy and development of civil society in this country will be determined to a large extent by the quality and credibility of the upcoming elections. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to make sure that theirs will be a better country to live in than it is at present.