Turbulence ahead in election year

Poll-driven political instability will compound Indonesia’s economic, separatist and terrorist problems.

WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR IN 2004

It is now election year in Indonesia. For the first time in the country’s history, Indonesians will vote directly for their president.

But it will be a long, drawn-out and messy affair with significant security implications compounded by the threat of terrorism.

There will be three crucial turning points this year: parliamentary elections in April, the first round of the presidential poll three months later, and a possible run-off in September.

A new government may well be established very late in the year, but political instability will lurk in the background, especially during critical intervals between the legislative and presidential elections.

There are two potential flashpoints.

The first may be between May and June when it is decided which of the parties are entitled to nominate their candidate for the presidential ticket.

The other could occur when the final two contenders for the presidential run-off are established.

The mass violence in Bulelang, Bali, three months ago between rival supporters of Golkar and the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P) could be a harbinger of things to come.

Given the electoral requirement of a 3-per-cent threshold, Golkar and the PDI-P, together with the United Development Party (PPP), the Nation Awakening Party (PKB) and the National Mandate Party (PAN), look set to dominate the show, along with the candidates that carry their banners.

And if history is a guide in post-independence Indonesia – especially the results of the most democratic elections in 1955 and 1999 – mainstream nationalist-secular parties such as Golkar and PDI-P will be major winners.

The parliamentary polls will narrow the range of candidates who will go on to fight for the presidency, but the outcome is still far from certain.

Under the terms of the newly amended Constitution, the voters will choose between ‘ready-made’ presidential tickets featuring a presidential and vice-presidential candidate who will have been nominated by a party or alliance of parties.

In order to win the first round outright, a candidate must gain not only the majority of votes, but also 20 per cent of the votes in two-thirds of Indonesia’s provinces.

The second round would pit the top two presidential nominees in a head-to-head, first-past-the-post election.

Incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri is clearly a front runner. But surveys carried out over the past year suggest that Indonesians are increasingly considering alternatives.

She is no longer a shoo-in for the presidency. Her PDI-P party is in a rut and likely to lose three blocs of supporters.

The first is the crop of new voters who make up about 7 per cent of the estimated 140 million who will vote in the general election next year.

Many of them took to the streets against price hikes earlier this year.

Another is the large number of former Golkar cadres who crossed over to the PDI-P in 1999. Many have returned to Golkar because of disillusionment with Ms Megawati’s policies.

The third group comes from voters loyal to the Nadhlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim group that former president Abdurrahman Wahid used to head.

Memories are long in politics. And many have not forgotten Ms Megawati’s ‘constitutional coup’ against him before seizing power in 2001.

The PDI-P’s popularity may be waning, yet no one can deny Ms Megawati’s continuing symbolic appeal as Sukarno’s daughter in the heartlands of Indonesia.

Four years ago, her party gained the majority of votes cast in 13 provinces: North Sumatra, Riau, Jambi, Bengkulu, South Sumatra, Lampung, West Java, Jakarta, Central Java, Yogyakarta, Bali, Central Kalimantan and East Kalimantan.

Given that the presidential poll will be personality-driven, she is unlikely to have problems maintaining her popularity in these provinces.

There is another important factor at play: money. As the incumbent, she has the authority to mobilise resources needed to win an election. In 1999, the PDI-P generated millions of dollars when she was just party leader.

Her husband Taufik Kiemas has played a critical role in raking in funds through his connections with businessmen. The patronage network is now more extensive.

Golkar will pose the biggest challenge for the 55-year-old Indonesian leader, especially if it wins the parliamentary election.

That would throw the presidential race wide open.

But the party has not produced a leader that has the national appeal of the President.

Ms Megawati may well get into power again – but only just.

Whatever the outcome, the next 12 months in Indonesia appear rather turbulent.

Against a backdrop of internecine battles fought at the subterranean levels of politics, the shadow of Islamic extremism and problems in strife-torn provinces, such as Aceh and Papua, is cast upon Indonesia.

The Jemaah Islamiah terrorist network has been emasculated with the arrests of 200 of its members over the past two years. In Indonesia, its Java-based cells have been smashed.

But key members continue to operate on the fringes of the archipelago in Sumatra, Sulawesi and Kalimantan.

Intelligence officials believe that three of the most wanted terrorists in South-east Asia – Dr Azahari Husin, Noordin Mohamad Top and Zulkarnaen – are most likely in Indonesia, planning more suicide bombings.

The bottom line is that the JI continues to survive in Indonesia even after carrying out two of the bloodiest attacks in the country’s history.

Though the Megawati administration was among the 47 governments worldwide that supported the United Nations blacklisting of the JI, the group is still far from being proscribed in Indonesia.

Political considerations, especially concerns over shaking up the Muslim ground ahead of the elections, are holding Jakarta back.

Elections, the pervasive threat of terrorism and centrifugal tendencies in strife-torn Aceh and Papua are sure mufflers of an economy desperate to bounce back.

Indonesian officials looking at the country through rose-tinted glasses boast that economic growth of 5 per cent is a viable target this year. But the picture is far from rosy.

Foreign investors are still cagey about the country. Three administrations since Mr Suharto’s fall have done little to assuage business sentiments as they muddled through reform.

For Indonesia, 2004 will be another year of muddling through.

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