|Vol. 3, No. 2 - Spring 1997|
|The "Festival of Democracy"
By Kyle Perkins
What the Suharto regime promoted as a "festival of democracy" turned out to be a carnival of repression. On May 29, the sixth general election since General Suharto seized power in 1965 took place after weeks of violence. The official death toll in pre-election violence is over 250.
The New York Times informed its readers that Suharto "has voiced worries about the violence. 'A complex society can be vulnerable to unrest if not handled carefully,' he said in December."
But in March, Suharto said that anyone who tried to defeat him unconstitutionally would be "clobbered." The armed forces commander-in-chief announced that during the campaign period, troops would be ordered to "shoot on sight" anyone who "violates the law." Despite these direct threats, the regime now insists that the majority of those killed died in "traffic accidents."
In occupied East Timor, where conducting Indonesian elections violates international law, at least 17 died in fighting between occupation troops and guerrillas. In the weeks that followed, Indonesia arrested large numbers of East Timorese civilians as collective punishment for the violence. They shipped in 6,000 additional troops to the territory, and expelled and barred foreign journalists. At this writing, the repression continues to escalate. (See pages 1-3).
1996 Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta said that attacks on polling booths in the occupied territory show "the degree of offense which the mock Indonesian elections, conducted in a climate of coercion and manipulation" give to the people there. "The fact that East Timorese are being forced to vote for Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, who has no links whatsoever with the territory, is a further major affront." (Alatas was put forth as the ruling GOLKAR party's candidate from East Timor.)
Is this Democracy?
Many in the U.S. also questioned the "festival." Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI): "Actually, it does not seem accurate to call this event an election since the polling was conducted amid worsening political repression and human rights abuses by the Indonesian Government. As in past elections, all candidates were prescreened and new political parties banned. Individuals who posed even the slightest challenge to President Suharto's power were not allowed to participate. We cannot mistake this process for a real election. Rather, it was a pitiful example of a brutal authoritarian Government attempting to masquerade as a democracy."
Indonesians voted to fill 425 seats in the country's parliament, the DPR (the People's Representative Assembly); ABRI, the Indonesian armed forces appoints the other 75 members. Mohammad Hikom, a political scientist at the Indonesian Academy of Sciences, commented that "up to now, 30 years after it was created, there is not yet one bill that has been proposed by the DPR itself. [It is] worse than a rubber stamp as they don't even have a stamp. They just follow orders."
The 500 elected and military-appointed DPR parliamentarians make up half of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), along with 500 presidential appointees. This larger body will engage in a lock-step re-election of Suharto in March 1998.
The government party, GOLKAR, announced in advance they would gain at least 70% of the vote. Given the regime's domination of the electoral process, they had reason to be confident: the two nominal opposition parties the Indonesian Democracy Party (PDI) and the United Development Party (PPP) are forbidden to operate below the district level, and are thereby denied access to 40% of voters, while GOLKAR dominates every administrative level.
All six million civil servants and government employees are required to join KORPRI, a GOLKAR-controlled association; in turn, all must vote GOLKAR. As the authoritative observers at the London-based Indonesian Human Rights Campaign, TAPOL, point out, "the two other parties allowed to contest the election are required to adhere to the state ideology, Pancasila, and support the government's program ... avoiding the international opprobrium that always confronts a one-party state, a system [created by Suharto in 1973] in which the regime's party would always win."
Despite considerable risks, record numbers of Indonesians protested the sham elections. Sri Bintang Pamungkas, an outspoken former Parliamentarian and leader of the newly-formed dissident party PUDI, was arrested in early March and charged with subversion, a capital offense, after advocating an election boycott. In Central Java, two students received one-year sentences for distributing leaflets which contained the phrase "protect the elections from cheating."
Indonesian authorities arrested members of the pro-democracy PRD party (which, like PUDI, is not allowed to run candidates), and forced others underground after PRD members covered walls in eleven cities with the slogan "without Megawati, boycott the elections." Last year, the military ousted Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Suharto's predecessor Sukarno, from the leadership of the PDI in a regime-manipulated party congress that left long-disenfranchised Megawati supporters enraged and led to the Jakarta uprisings of late July 1996.
Megawati stated that she wouldn't be voting, which some of her supporters saw as a veiled boycott endorsement. After her forced ouster, Megawati enthusiasts deserted the PDI in droves, many marching behind the banners of the Muslim-led PPP. The government decreed chanting "Mega-wati" illegal and sent out thousands of riot troops into the streets of Jakarta, feeding the rage and frustration of Indonesians fed up with the Suharto kleptocracy. Without Megawati, the PDI received less than 3% of the vote, down from around 15% in previous elections.
Mainstream U.S. news coverage of the resulting violence stressed that Suharto's New Order has "lifted" Indonesia from poverty. But by defying blockades of riot police, angry throngs of poor Indonesians expressed their disgust with the Suharto family and their billionaire cronies, who have only worked to lift themselves. One PPP float featured a dummy hanging from a gallows with a sign saying "corrupter" draped around its neck.
In the wake of GOLKAR's inevitable "landslide," the Independent Election Monitoring Committee [KIPP] pointed to evidence of multiple voting by individuals, ballots from unregistered voters and intimidation of election monitors. The group's findings are supported by the PPP, and are based on reports from volunteers at hundreds of polling stations in 47 cities across Indonesia. As of this writing, massive protests in response to early election results, which gave Golkar 74% of the vote, are sweeping the country.
The day after the vote, the U.S. State Department gave its assessment: "The United States believes that parliamentary elections are tightly controlled by the government of Indonesia. The electoral system severely limits political competition; Indonesian citizens do not have the ability to change their government through democratic means."
East Timorese people, of course, don't even have their own government.