Indonesia: At heart, calmer than it sounds

by Philip Bowring

Jakarta: The communal horrors of East Timor, Ambon and West
Kalimantan are real enough. But they no more describe
Indonesia than Kashmir, Bihar and Assam describe India.

More remarkable is how stable the heartland, Java, now seems
after 18 months of political and economic crisis and the
battle of 48 parties for votes on June 7 to the parliament
(DPR). It could be the calm before another storm. Some
electioneering violence is inevitable, if only because of the
size of crowds that can be generated in densely populated
island. But despite the excitement of elections, despite
regional, religious and income divides there is an air of

The main players have moved towards the centre to broaden
their appeal, and prepare the way for future alliances. The
poll will be inconclusive so coalitions are inevitable. Most
obvious has been Amien Rais, head of the Muhammadiyah Islamic
organisation and of the PAN  party. Previously feared by
secularists and Chinese, he has shifted from an strongly
Muslim and redistributionist agenda to one broadly attractive
to the urban middle class -- and even backed by Chinese money.

Megawati Sukarnoputri is saying little about policy but her
PDI Perjuangan, widely tipped to emerge as the largest party,
has been developing links to military figures and
professional, secularist rebels from Golkar, the ruling party. 

The strongest force at work at the grass roots is not ideology
but simply a desire to participate. For every member of the
old elite who fears elections and wants to see them disrupted
there are at least two who want it to show that the nation is
capable of political development. 

Suspicions that the elections might be rigged or popular will
thwarted by the military still exist. There is evidence of
high-placed stirring in Ambon. In remoter areas, Golkar may
use the government machinery in its favour. It will anyway
fare better outside Java, which has been less effected by the
economic crisis. There is concern that even if Golkar
genuinely does well -- say more than 35% of the vote -- the
populace, or at least the urban masses of Java who demand real
change, will take to the streets.

In theory, a big Golkar showing could thwart change. Add in
the 38 military seats in the 550 member DPR and most of the
150 indirectly elected and appointed seats in the 700 member
MPR -- which decides the president -- and Golkar could remain
in control. In practice that seems unlikely. Golkar itself is
factionalised with different groups -- Islamists, liberal
secularists, upholders of the status quo -- having different
ideas on whether to support the election of President Habibie.
Nor can Golkar take the army for granted. Ex-military men have 
ambitions which require following the electoral wind.
Nor does Golkar have non-directly elected MPR seats in its
pocket. The Electoral Commission, which has a key role in MPR
selection, has a broad base and has established an independent
reputation. It will be closely monitored.

There are dangers that some groups will use violence to
disrupt the democratic process. However, a bigger danger may
need to be that horse-trading -- and money politics -- at the
MPR will deliver a president whose support is broad-based but
derived from compromises which make weak government
inevitable. It may fail to live up to demands for change -- 
punishment of some members of the Suharto clan, plus those who
robbed the banking system, and gestures towards wealth

The most ardent reformers are themselves divided into the
secular/Islamist camps represented by PDI and PAN. Islamic
based parties, and even the PDI, are themselves multi-hued and
interleaved with strands of nationalist, statist and free
market thinking.

Ideological difference are mostly not great, nuances are many
and personal relationships will count for a lot in coalition-
building. For instance, conflicting personal ambitons makes
Abdurrahman Wahid, liberal leader of traditional Islam, an
ally of Megawati not of Amien Rais.

Battles for economic interest will be intense -- but divides
are not all along party lines. There is a unique opportunity
for the government, which is having to bail out the banking
system, to acquire bankrupt assets on behalf on the (mostly
indigenous) people. But that would mean the destruction of
many of the groups, Chinese and indigenous, which prospered
under Suharto. They -- and some senior officials -- will be
keeping cash in hand to influence the MPR.

None of the main party leaders is offering detailed economic
proposals. Few may appreciate the extent of the problems to be
faced. The economy may be bottoming out but the debt burden
will hobble all governments for years to come -- not a bright
re-start for Indonesian democracy. 

If this all looks messy, it is. But it shows a society
developing its political system under intense economic
pressure. Indonesia is not turning it back on modernity as
Iran did to avenge the Shah. Despite recession and the IMF,
most politicians have an international outlook. Most also
still have stake in ensuring that the economic and social
gains under Suharto are not erased by political turmoil.

Indonesia is trying to progress to the point where unity is
fostered -- at province as well as central level -- by
participation not authoritarianism. Weak consensus government
would be a problem -- but a lesser problem than the violent
divides so often forecast for the post-Suharto era.



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