Mega Challenges

VOTES 2004 INDONESIA

Off to the races.

MORE than 40 elections will be held around the world this year, with about a dozen in Asia. Indonesia, Malaysia, India, the Philippines, Taiwan and Hong Kong are among the places where critical elections will be held.

Today, we kick off Votes 2004, a new series of reports on the people and politics behind the polls. This week, Straits Times Correspondents will give you an update on who’s running, who’s ahead, and why.

We begin today with Indonesia, which will have a triple whammy: parliamentary elections in April, presidential polls in July and a possible presidential run-off in September, making for a tumultuous year ahead.

While Golkar poses the biggest threat to Megawati’s rule, whipping her own party into shape may be a tougher task.

The old New Order appears to be on the rise again in Indonesia.

With just three months to go before the parliamentary elections, surveys show Golkar, the party of former president Suharto, has a very strong chance of winning.

Granted, political polling is in its infancy in Indonesia.

But the most credible survey, carried out by the International Foundation for Election System (IFES), indicates that Indonesians have lost confidence in the major parties.

Mistrust of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P) of President Megawati Sukarnoputri has almost doubled over the last two years.

Golkar, by contrast, has lost less support than any other party.

To cash in on the rising nostalgia among millions for the wong cilik or little people scheme which spelt cheap rice and stability during the New Order regime years, Golkar is attempting to reform itself.

For one, it is serious about adopting a bottom-up philosophy to develop the party.

Over the past two years, it recruited and trained one million party cadres to build grassroots support.

Golkar has also introduced a party convention system to elect its presidential candidate.

This process, open to party insiders and outsiders, is a deliberate tactic aimed at distancing Golkar from the one-man rule, cronyism and election rigging of the Suharto era – even if it appears to be more form than substance.

Golkar’s new found nerve is just one of several daggers pointing at the heart of the incumbent President’s ambitions as 140 million Indonesians get ready to vote this year.

Ms Megawati also faces threats from Muslim parties and an ad hoc coalition of anti-establishment figures.

The most serious challenge to her rule, however, could come from within her party.

In recent months, she has lashed out against PDI-P cadres, accusing them of corruption and calling them ‘thugs’ who were out of touch with voters.

Ms Megawati’s message is aimed at restoring PDI-P’s battered image.

Clearly, public dissatisfaction with her party is growing. Critics blame that on her failure to keep her promises to curb graft and bring economic benefits to the poor since she took office two years ago.

Ms Megawati knows that a bad showing by the PDI-P in the parliamentary election could hurt her chances in July’s presidential vote.

A massive turnover of cadres is taking place in the provinces to steer the party back on course. Old members are being axed and new ones are being recruited.

But one should not write off the PDI-P. It is still riding on Ms Megawati’s symbolic appeal and grassroots reach.

In 1999, the PDI-P won the majority of the votes cast in 13 provinces: North Sumatra, Riau, Jambi, Bengkulu, South Sumatra, Lampung, West Java, Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Bali, Central Kalimantan and East Kalimantan.

The party is unlikely to have problems winning in those provinces again although its popularity might dip in some.

Significantly for the PDI-P, the election of the president and vice-president will no longer be carried out in the national assembly where it can be prone to golden handshakes and manipulation.

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

To push its sponsored tickets first past the post in the presidential election, the PDI-P still needs to ally itself with another strong party or an alliance of parties.

Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung told The Straits Times that ‘the ideal scenario was for both parties to join forces’.

‘It is going to be a very close fight between Golkar and PDI-P. The margin of difference in the election between both parties will be very small,’ he said.

His suggestion is not as far-fetched as it might seem. There are 24 parties contesting the parliamentary elections this year with PDI-P and Golkar being the frontrunners.

Clearly, the single biggest threat to the PDI-P is Golkar, given its grassroots reach and well-oiled infrastructure. But at the same time, it represents the most natural ally for Ms Megawati’s party.

The two parties represent the political mainstream, and have the most acceptable ideological platform – secular nationalism – for the majority of Indonesians.

According to a Cabinet minister, if Ms Megawati were to forge an alliance with Golkar, she would prefer that her running mate be Coordinating Minister for Welfare Jusuf Kalla, rather than Mr Akbar, who is facing damning corruption charges.

Failing that, she is believed to be considering her Vice-President and leader of the Muslim-based United Development Party (PPP) Hamzah Haz, security czar Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the leader of the Nadhlatul Ulama, Mr Hasyim Muzadi.

Golkar, meanwhile, is also targeting Mr Yudhoyono and Mr Muzadi, if it does not join forces with the PDI-P.

The backroom dealings have already begun.

The President’s husband Taufik Kiemas has been cultivating Golkar and the all-important Muslim camp.

The palace is pursuing a ‘containment strategy’ of fending off challenges from these two blocs.

Mr Akbar, for his part, is hoping to strike a deal, accepting the number two position in return for the authorities dropping the charges against him that could see him go to jail.

That is easier said than done. Party pressures – especially if Golkar wins the general election – could prevent him from making any such deals.

In that scenario, Golkar executives would want to go for the jugular, by possibly joining forces with the Muslim camp or with groups opposed to Ms Megawati.

As the polls loom, the biggest challenge for the President is to whip her own party into shape and contain the threat of Golkar.

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