Thu, 11 Mar 1999

Polls may rival cheating of the past: Observer

JAKARTA (JP): This year's general election will greatly resemble those in the past in terms of cheating attributable to political groups defending the status quo, an observer predicts.

And to make things worse, there are lots of technical shortcomings ranging from the government's make-shift preparations for the elections to the limited monitoring by independent watchdogs, which all open up opportunities for cheats.

"I'm afraid there will be no fair play in the elections. The situation now is no different from that under the New Order," noted lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.

Todung coordinates the University Network for Free and Fair Elections (Unfrel), one of the three biggest local election monitoring groups along with the Independent Commission for Election Monitoring (KIPP) and the University Forum.

Todung said there had been obvious unfairness occurring in the public eye but beyond the reach of the law even before the race began.

"There have been reports about village bureaucrats who turn away certain people applying for identity cards, claiming there is a shortage of application forms," Todung said.

Scheduled for June 7, the elections are restricted to Indonesians aged 17 or above. They must show ID cards when they register themselves between March 18 and April 17 for the polls. Some provincial administrations, including West Java and North Sumatra, have pledged themselves to provide a one-day service for ID card applicants and exempt them from fees.

Todung said the starkest evidence of unfairness was in the absence of sanctions in the newly passed Elections Law for Cabinet ministers who campaign for Golkar while on official tours.

"The issue was overlooked when everybody demanded a ban on civil servants holding executive posts in political parties," he said, recalling deliberation of the election bill in the House of Representatives.

"Cabinet ministers are not civil servants, so they can argue they do no wrong before the law with their campaigning activities," Todung added.

Minister of Tourism, Art and Culture Marzuki Usman was the latest to come under fire when he reportedly attended a Golkar rally during his official visit to Jambi on Tuesday. He contested the allegations on Wednesday, saying he had behaved like the United States President Bill Clinton, who drops by to meet Democratic constituents while on trips.

Todung also said there was a possibility of excessive use of money by Golkar to win the elections, but it could not be regarded as an offense because the present election law limits only financial aid to be given to a political party.

Golkar, winner of the past six elections, has at least Rp 17 billion (US$1.9 million) it amassed during the New Order, making it financially the strongest party.

Despite the worries about the potential for blatant cheating, Todung admitted that the poll watchdogs would have little effect on the validity of the elections.

"Unlike their counterparts in the Philippines, poll watchdogs here play a peripheral role in the elections. Not only because they cannot act as witnesses, but because they also have no right to protest against violations," Todung said.

Only poll contestants have the right to protest, but their complaints about the proceedings of the elections and reports of violations discovered by the official election monitoring body will not annul the outcome of the polls, according to the law.

The law also says that the 53-strong Elections Committee (KPU) needs only two-thirds of signatories to endorse the results.

Todung said that with Unfrel expecting to recruit 150,000 volunteers and hundreds of thousands more from the KIPP and the University Forum, the independent monitoring groups would be able to watch over most of some 270,000 polling booths nationwide.

"We just hope that the Elections Committee will allow us to keep a copy of the balloting report from each polling booth," Todung said. Once established, the KPU will draw up a code of conduct to cover those involved in the elections.

Todung said the United Nations Development Program had pledged $15 million in aid to help local poll watchdogs undertake their jobs. More assistance is expected from USAID, which has yet to detail the amount.

"We may need more funds, because we have to provide our posts nationwide with computers," he said. The UNDP has agreed to provide each post with a computer, far below Todung's estimate of nine.

Another headache for the poll watchdogs is the fact that they are pressed for time to make their volunteers ready for their monitoring jobs.

"We are preoccupied with organizational matters, while we should have started training our volunteers," he said.

When asked about Golkar retaining its supremacy given the many loopholes standing between the reform agenda and free and just elections, Todung was silent for a while.

"Golkar has a great chance of winning again, but we at least hope for more democratic general elections to come in the next five years," he said. (amd)