Subject: James Dunn on Indonesian Election

The Indonesian Presidential Election

James Dunn

This week world attention is on Indonesia, where for the first time in their history the Indonesian people will be voting to elect their president. Previous incumbents were elected by the 1,000 Peoples Consultative Assembly, half of whose members were government appointees an obviously less than democratic process. Choosing a president this way may be a new experience for Indonesians, but elections are by no means novel for our neighbours. Half a century ago the new republic held several national elections. Unfortunately, the results exposed the frailty of democracy in a community whose unity was precariously based on opposition to Dutch rule and Japanese occupation. Deep divisions followed ideological, religious and ethnic lines, and for many years Indonesia's national unity was fragile.

President Sukarno's introduction in 1958 of what he called 'guided democracy', and with it tougher central control, sparked a military revolt that did nothing to advance democracy. By the mid-sixties there were fears that Indonesia was on the verge of a take-over by the powerful Indonesian Communist Party, an exaggerated fear, but one that did not suit the TNI generals, who feared the loss to their jealously guarded power and privileges. This fragile democracy disappeared after General Suharto assumed the presidency. The Smiling General's Orde Baru (New Order) in some ways resembled Saddam Hussein's regime. It may have had a more benign appearance, but its oppressive reality - political oppression and the killing of a million people (most of them Indonesians) - was not so different. Like Saddam, Suharto allowed a high degree of religious tolerance, and suppressed Muslim political ambitions. Generally speaking political dissent was not tolerated. Suharto's elite Kopassus Special Forces played the key role in keeping order, a role akin to that of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard.

Here in Australia both Labor and Coalition governments turned their faces away from such distasteful undemocratic practices. They were silent during the slaughter of so-called communists in 1965-66 and when East Timor was a killing field from 1975 to 1980. Our accommodating relationship with the Suharto regime ended only after the president's fall in 1998. Indeed, on the eve of Suharto's overthrow he was described by a senior Coalition minister as arguably the greatest political leader of last century! Under President Habibie Indonesia began shifting towards a democratic format. It should have brought Australia and Indonesian closer, but ironically relations between Jakarta and Canberra cooled distinctly, complicated by our East Timor involvement.

A lot has been said about Indonesia's transition to democracy, but the country still has a long way to go. The progress so far is a reminder that free elections and relatively free speech do not in themselves produce a functioning democratic system. They are the means, not the end. As President Wahid, the leading reformist, was to discover, for real progress key obstacles have to be removed. One of those obstacles is the position of the TNI generals whose power, under Suharto, pervaded all sectors of the state. Most cabinet ministers, provincial governors, ambassadors, and many heads of departments were generals, who also headed leading state corporations, such as, for a time, the giant Pertamina oil company. Megawati soon became a captive of the system she inherited and, under her, democratic reform has hardly moved. The military has regained political influence, if not the privileges it enjoyed under Suharto. Most worrying of all, there has been no serious attempt to investigate past atrocities, a process that would surely hasten fundamental political and military reforms.

It is against this background that we need to view today's election. It could open up a new chapter in transition to democracy, but such a prospect is not assured. It is clouded by the presence of three retired generals among the candidates - former Defence Chief, General Wiranto, a former senior officer, General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and General Agum Gumelar (a vice-presidential candidate). Megawati, who campaigned listlessly, is at present trailing Susilo, followed by Wiranto, with two other candidates, Amien Rais and Hamzah Haz further behind.

Wiranto's image is stained by his indictment for crimes against humanity by the UN appointed prosecutor-general in East Timor. In my assessment (as a former investigator of these crimes) his command responsibility in the state terror launched against the territory in 1999 is indisputable. If he were an Iraqi, he would probably be among the eleven now facing trial.

From the democratic point of view, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former lieutenant general, is a much more attractive personality A leader of TNI reformers after Suharto's fall, he goes into the election as the outstanding favourite, according to Indonesian opinion polls. I hope his reformism sticks, but have doubts. Bambang (or simply SBY) as he is known, was not a Kopassus officer, but he did participate in Operasi Seroja, the invasion of East Timor when thousands of civilians were massacred. He was also there for a time as commander of 744 Battalion - a unit with a sorry human rights record. His role in this murky past needs to be aired.

The third former four-star general, Agum Gumelar, is a former senior Kopassus officer who, like Bambang appears to have gone through a change of heart. But Agum has held senior posts in the dirty tricks part of Kopassus, and we need to know more about his part in this sinister agency's operations. He also had a key involvement in a plan to rearm the militias forced into West Timor by Interfet, and to support their return to the East.

It will be hard for Bambang to win outright, for he must get more than 50% of the votes. If he doesn't, then there will be a run-off in September, which means it could be some time before this important election outcome is known. For long-suffering Indonesians, however, as a festival of democracy this election offers hope for the future.

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