Asia-Pacific, Headlines

INDONESIA: Golkar Win Seen, But Signs of ‘Protest Vote’ Awaited

Samsudin Berlian

JAKARTA, May 30 1997 (IPS) - The ruling Golkar Party appears headed for a landslide win after Thursday’s general election, but many Indonesians are looking to gauge the impact of a boycott initiative and any other sign of a ‘protest vote’.

As of Thursday night, Golkar was getting more than 80 percent of the 16.6 million votes counted so far. There were no estimates of voter turnout but the government has said there are 124.7 million registered voters in Indonesia.

The Golkar party aims to get 70 percent of the vote for 425 of 500 seats in Parliament. That would be slightly higher than the 68.1 percent it got in the 1992 elections.

Nothing less than a Golkar majority is expected, but equally crucial are signs of how much authority the 75-year-old Suharto wields over the nation he has ruled since 1966.

Already, the May 29 vote took place amid the worst-ever poll violence in Indonesia’s history, releasing what to many was pent- up resentment. More than 140 people were killed in riots on May 23 in South Kalimantan, which began as a clash between partisans of Golkar and the Muslim-led United Development Party.

Saying the electoral system is stacked in Golkar’s favour, opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri publicly announced that she would not vote.

Megawati, the 51-year-old daughter of Indonesia’s founding president Sukarno, did not openly ask her supporters, estimated at 11 million, to follow suit as such a call would be illegal, but her intention was clear enough.

Megawati was ousted as leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) through a government-backed move, in order to prevent her from running for the May polls and eventually from challenging Suharto.

The number of voters opting for ‘golput’ (which literally means ‘white group’) by boycotting the election or spoiling ballots is being watched closely, it being a gauge of opposition sentiment.

Large voter turnouts have traditionally meant a lot for the Suharto government, more than just getting a majority win for Golkar. From the beginning, Suharto has tried to base his right to rule the country on the claim that the people endorse him.

The government’s concern about the ‘golput’ movement was such that Suharto himself in a nationally televised speech a day before the election called on the people to go to the booths.

“I call on all of us to exercise the right to vote with a sense of responsibility,” he said. “The right to vote and the right to be elected are basic democratic political rights.”

The pro-government chair of the Indonesian Ulemas Council, Hasan Basri, even went as far as to say that refusal to vote is a sin. “Those who do not exercise their right to vote, or choose golput, spoil Allah’s divine gift of grace,” he was quoted by Antara news agency as saying.

Since Megawati announced she was not voting, speculations have been rife as to whether her supporters will join the ‘golput’ movement or vote for the only other opposition contestant, the Muslim-based PPP.

For most, voting for the PDI, now led by the man who ousted Megawati was out of the question, as was voting for Golkar.

The percentages of the vote that the opposition parties get may well be a measure of public sentiment.

If the Islamic party PPP, which got 17 percent of the vote in 1992, registers a significant increase in this election, it could well mean that it has gotten the votes of Megawati’s supporters.

But if not, the ‘golput’ movement may, for the first time, have made its mark.

With 16.6 million votes counted as of Thursday night, the PPP got 14.45 percent of the vote. Golkar was getting 83.17 percent, and the PDI 2.38 percent.

In the 1992 elections, Golkar got 68.1 percent of the vote, the PPP, 17 percent and the PDI, 14.89 percent.

For now, Golkar seems headed for an overwhelming win, while PDI may get only a meagre number of votes. PPP is not faring as well as expected, which could mean that Megawati’s supporters heeded her and went ‘golput’.

But while Golkar’s dominance will remain, and perhaps become even stronger, the credibility of Suharto’s rule may increasingly be put to test in a country where rich-poor gaps and lack of room for political change are fueling internal tension.

The polls also do little to address the uncertainty on the issue of succession, even as Suharto looks poised to be appointed to a seventh, five-year term as president next March.

The election has also come under fire from critics who distrust the vote process. While manual counting of votes in booths are open and witnesses from the three parties, if available, are appointed, nobody but government officials have access to subsequent processes.

Leaders of opposition parties are denied access to the electronic counting process. Only Golkar chairman Harmoko, as a Cabinet minister, can access the computerised counting online from his home.

In a statement Wednesday, Human Rights Watch/Asia said the Indonesian poll system was set up in favour of the government, adding the election’s outcome would not reflect Indonesians’ right to have a government based on the will of the people.

“The electoral system is rigged against the opposition, legally, structurally, and in day-to-day practice,” said Sidney Jones, the group’s executive director.

“If there were any genuine outlets in Indonesia for expression of political and economic grievances, we almost certainly would not have seen the violence that has erupted across the country in recent months,” she added.

But on Thursday, there were only minor disturbances as voters thronged the 305,219 polling booths across the country.

By itself, Thursday’s election will not bring any change. Suharto himself said on Wednesday that the parliamentary election is not an instrument to change the government — but a vehicle “to harmonise government policies and development with the people’s wishes”.

He added: “Through the general election, we can change the state’s policies and development in an orderly and controlled way,”

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