Sat, 03 Apr 2004

Election 2004 is for tomorrow, not for today

Wimar Witoelar InterMatrix Communications Jakarta

Around 145 million Indonesian voters will go to the poll stations around the country today. There has not been as much international news about Indonesia as there was in the past. The trouble spots in the world command the major news stories, because of their direct impact on the home countries of the global news services. It is not newsworthy to report the sigh of relief which is spreading throughout the archipelago.

Contrary to the fears of many, the campaigning period has passed off relatively peacefully. A substantial part of the campaining has moved to TV clips, debates, print ads and billboards, boosting parts of the economy. Even the money going around to pay for campaign supporters had a positive impact to boost consumer spending as billions of rupiah have flooded the market.

There is, however, much less passion in the campaigning. Part of the reason is public apathy related to fatigue, dashed hopes at betterment of living conditions. The current government has effectively doused the fire of reform that burned in our hearts since the magic of 1998. Soeharto was pushed from power by sheer emotional commitment of students and the masses. But then the politicians who took over from the popular movement failed to use the momentum for true reform. Instead they established a new political elite and brought cynicism upon the political landscape.

The Megawati government curiously reflects more of the Soeharto political culture than the pioneering spirit of her father Sukarno, and it was by exploiting his image that she was put in power by her political handlers. Now presidential candidates include known corruptors and alleged violators of human rights. Not really leaders to build your dreams on.

There is little optimism for the 2004 elections if you are looking at immediate results but there is immense potential if you think of the future. Quite the reverse of the situation after Soeharto's fall when there was a sense of immediate relief, but little readiness for real reform. At that time new public leaders were perceived as reformists. Now we have the first election run by a body (the General Election Commission or KPU) which is independent of government intervention. But the candidates are either retreads of past regimes or opportunists trying out newly acquired skills of abuse of power and corruption. It is now a case of good guys electing bad guys,

So who are the good guys? They are the people who now run the elections. Many jokes are circulated over the logistical mishaps in preparations for the elections. Delays in printing and distributing voting ballots, lack of information and problems in communications.

Curiously, people miss the point that the KPU is unprecedented anywhere in the world of elections. The figures are mind- boggling: More than 400,000 candidates, over 600 million copies of more than 2,000 different ballot papers, to be distributed to 600,000 polling stations spread out across the world's archipelago country, and all the votes will be cast in the first few hours of April 5.

But the really good guys are the people who will go vote. The ordinary man and woman who want a better life, who never want trouble, who prove everyday that they are good folks. People who live in peace when there is no activity from shadowy figures from the state inciting riots against the Chinese-Indonesians or among religions.

People who do not condone terrorism and get irritated when their attitude is doubted. The funny thing, is that because the bad guys are now reinstated in the system after brave, but ultimately frustrated, attempts to push them out from 1998 to 2001, they have stopped masterminding mayhem to destabilize the governments of 1998-2001. They prefer having their images on TV commercials and campaign posters and like the idea of being invited as luncheon speakers and embassy guests.

So why is there optimism? Well, processes and results rarely happen at the same time. When you work out in the gym it is all sweat and tears, but weeks later your biceps and triceps bulge and make you proud. When you buy a water pump it produces dirty water initially, but after a few days the clean water starts to flow out. Parents raise their children with a mixture of hope and grief, but when the children become adults they bring all the joy in the world, if you are as lucky as I have been.

Indonesia has to be lucky now because we have been so unlucky in the past. Indonesia is a war child, giving birth to itself not by the good graces of colonialists but by intense armed conflict. We have had to fight against religious conflict, with greater success than most outsiders may think. We have had social upheavals, political turnarounds and economic collapse unmatched in the area. This has given some of us a measure of humility, some a sense of inferiority, and in a few cases syndromes of belligerence, after a century of bloodshed wrought upon their people and on other people from all over the world.

It is good that Islam is not a point of conflict in Indonesia. This is contrary to the assumption of outside observers. We can tell good people apart from bad people even when Muslims look particularly frightening to outsiders. No party with a serious chance has picked up a religious theme except soothing messages of tolerance. There is no anti-foreigner rhetoric. Pluralism is our theme as we downplay ethnic, religious and regional differences.

Generations must pass for democracy to fully develop. What we have now is just the beginning. It has been only six years since we sent off a repressive regime. What we have now is at worst a messy state, and at best a fledgling democracy. Democratic change has to come from within. Sacrifices brought now, for democracy and human rights, are likely to pre-empt future suffering and pain, because in the end people will claim their legitimate democratic rights, whatever the cost. These are inevitable truths that we must recognize and build on. The elections will not bring salvation today. But will build the political infrastructure for tomorrow.