Mon, 22 Mar 1999

Golkar is the problem

With the general election less than three months away, every move Golkar makes is coming under scrutiny by the public and particularly opposition parties. Given Golkar's reputed history of cheating and manipulation in winning previous elections, the public has every right to be suspicious of the motives and behavior of the ruling party and its leaders, including President B.J. Habibie, its leading presidential candidate.

Just about every move it makes from now until June 7 will be seen as election maneuvering. Even the distribution of foreign aid to the poor under the social safety net program, no matter how noble the intention, has come to be considered part of Golkar and Habibie's populist policy to win votes in June.

Golkar leaders, of course, have an answer for every accusation of premature electioneering or election manipulation leveled against them, just as they did in past elections. If the heat gets too intense, they can always flex their political muscle, mobilizing support from power friends in the bureaucracy and the military, and from "friendly" media, including those controlled by the government and Golkar, to sway public opinion their way.

We have seen time and again how Golkar won the debate on the question of "money politics", on Cabinet members campaigning for Golkar while touring the region at the government's expense, on civil servants' participation in the elections, on the formation of the General Elections Commission, and on the drafting of the new election law in the House of Representatives, all of which give them a huge advantage over the other parties.

Criticism and accusations of manipulation against Golkar have intensified as the polling date nears, raising concerns the general election will be anything but honest and fair, let alone democratic. It would be wrong, however, to assume Golkar can get away this time with its past excesses. The political environment has changed too much for Golkar to simply deride or ignore its critics.

As it is, the nation is deeply polarized between those who support Golkar, and therefore endorse maintaining the status quo, and those who see the party as standing in the way of badly needed political reforms.

An election victory for Golkar -- either through an outright majority or a coalition with other parties -- will likely antagonize the proreform forces. It will bring students back into the streets again, throwing the country into a fresh political crisis. Another crisis is something this country can ill afford, especially when the rest of the world is gearing up for the new, more challenging era of the third millennium. Next time round, the crisis would likely be even more destructive than what we have witnessed this past year.

The decent and honorable thing for Golkar to do, if it really has the interest of the nation at heart as it always professes, is to bow out gracefully from this year's elections. Golkar's 32 years of misrule is an enduring stigma that will remain with us for many years to come. The nation deserves a break from Golkar's rule. And given its three-decade-long record of abuses of power, Golkar is hardly the force to carry out the reforms that this country so badly needs. Still, the party appears to be using all it has in a dogged bid to stay in power, with ominous hints of manipulation and money politics of the past.

It takes statesmanship to give up power, especially after enjoying its privileges for many years. Soeharto, for all his mistakes, had that quality, and showed it when he resigned from the presidency in May to save the nation from total ruin. He sacrificed personal interest for the good of the nation. It is unfortunate that the quality failed to rub off on his disciples such as Habibie, Akbar Tandjung and Gen. Wiranto.

It took one devastating riot, and more than 1,000 deaths, in Jakarta to make Soeharto realize that he was part of the problem, and not the solution. How many more violent unrests, and how many more deaths, will it take for the present Golkar leadership to realize that they are also part of the problem this country is facing?