Fri, 05 Sep 2003

Signs to watch for in RI polls

Stanley A. Weiss, The Straits Times, Asia News Network, Singapore

Voters in Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, will soon choose their own president. However, next year's direct election is not as simple as it seems.

Under the new election law, only parties that receive more than 5 percent of the vote in next April's parliamentary election can field a presidential candidate in the general election several months later. To win the presidency, a candidate must receive a majority of the national vote and more than 20 percent of the vote in at least half of Indonesia's 30 provinces -- effectively ruling out all but the two major parties.

How to make sense of it all? And what will the outcome mean for the future of this democracy-in-progress?

Here are five signs to watch for.

First, will we see a mother-and-child reunion? The country's largest party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) hopes President Megawati Soekarnoputri can hold on to power. However, accused of betraying the cause of reform in favor of business and military interests, Ibu Mega ("Mother Mega") has lost the love of her student and activist supporters.

The election is still Megawati's to lose. Watch for whether she continues to side with the entrenched elite or wins back her disenchanted supporters by returning to her reformasi roots.

Or will there be a "go-straight-to-jail" card for Akbar Tandjung? It was once a foregone conclusion that Golkar, the second largest party and the political vehicle of the former Soeharto dictatorship, would nominate its powerful boss, Akbar. However, convicted of corruption, he now awaits his appeal to the Supreme Court.

A legal victory for Akbar will clear the path to his party's nomination. However, electoral victory is unlikely to follow. The public are fed up with corruption, of which Akbar is now the poster child.

Third, will we see a new face for Golkar? A Supreme Court ruling against Akbar will send him straight to jail and force Golkar to find a new standard bearer. Among the 19 contenders there are three to watch.

Gen. Wiranto, the last armed forces chief under Soeharto, hopes Indonesians will overlook past human rights abuses. Now a crooner of love songs, the "singing general" serenades voters as the law-and-order strongman who will save the nation.

Coordinating Minister of People's Welfare Yusuf Kalla is widely admired for ending Muslim-Christian warfare in the Maluku islands, but he is not a native of Java, home to two-thirds of Indonesian voters. In contrast, Yogyakarta Governor Sultan Hamengku Buwono X is revered on the mainland as the last of the Java kings, but has little appeal in the provinces.

Polls show a geographically balanced Sultan-Yusuf ticket crushing Megawati.

Fourth, watch out for an Islamic kingmaker. Neither Megawati nor Golkar is expected to win an outright majority in the first round of voting. Barring an unlikely Megawati-Golkar alliance that would lock up the election, the race will be on to forge a winning coalition in the run-off. Three smaller Islamic-oriented parties may emerge as potential kingmakers.

Former president Abdurrahman Wahid remains the leader of the National Awakening Party (PKB) and retains the support of the 40 million-member Nahdlatul Ulama, the country's largest Muslim socio-political organization.

Amien Rais, speaker of the People's Consultative Assembly and leader of the National Mandate Party (PAN), has the support of the second largest Muslim organization, the 30-million-strong Muhammadiyah. Watch if Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah can overcome old rivalries and unite behind a single Islamic candidate.

Hamzah Haz, the current Vice-President and leader of the largest Muslim political party, the United Development Party (PPP), said he will not spurn offers of an Islamic coalition.

Last, what about wild cards? After two major terrorist attacks in as many years, politicians like Amien and Hamzah who have flirted with Islamic radicals are finished in moderate Indonesia. Indeed, the two major parties may yet find their winning ticket in some unusual places.

If Megawati dumps Hamzah, watch retired army general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, now Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs and popular for overseeing the military crackdown on the rebellious Aceh province. His selection as vice- president will be a signal that Megawati intends to defer to the military.

Golkar may find its salvation in Nurcholish Madjid, a moderate Muslim scholar beloved by Indonesians. Although he declined to seek the Golkar presidential nomination, he would make a popular running mate and useful cover should a Golkar administration and its military allies intensify the crackdown on Islamic militants.

Will Mother Mega keep her children in line? Will Akbar stay out of jail? Will Sultan-Kalla be the unbeatable duo? Will Islamic parties anoint the winner? Will wild cards shake up the system?

One outcome is certain. Five years removed from the dictatorship that ruled this nation for three decades, the competition is a healthy sign that Indonesia is taking another step towards being the world's third largest democracy.

And that is something to watch -- and cheer.

The writer is founder and chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a non-partisan organization based in Washington. This is a personal comment.