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INDONESIA
Established parties lose out in election
General on top in presidential vote

By Lee Sustar | July 23, 2004 | Page 12

A FORMER general of the Suharto dictatorship is the leading candidate in Indonesia's first direct election for president, set for September. In the first round of voting, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, known as SBY, got an estimated 34 percent of the vote, compared to 26 percent for the incumbent, President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

SBY, a former security minister under Megawati, is the candidate of the Democratic Party, which was only created last February, prior to parliamentary elections two months later. With another former general, Wiranto, coming in third in the first round of presidential voting, some observers have concluded that Indonesians are nostalgic for the Suharto regime that was driven from office by a massive rebellion in 1998.

The candidate of Suharto's party Golkar, Wiranto is accused of war crimes for his role in the bloody suppression of the independence struggle in East Timor, a former province of Indonesia. If Wiranto has been able make a comeback, Megawati is at least partly to blame.

Considered a democrat because of her reputation as a dissident under the Suharto dictatorship, as president, Megawati legitimized the military's crackdown on rebellious regions by declaring martial law on the province of Aceh. The daughter of the Indonesian leader ousted by Suharto, she has been willing to use force to maintain control over Indonesia's ethnically diverse population of 220 million, spread over 18,000 islands.

The U.S. government has given her political cover to do so via the "war on terror." The 2002 bombing of a nightclub on the island of Bali was used to target supposed Islamist activists in the world's largest Muslim country.

Wiranto seized the opportunity to present himself as a strong nationalist who could maintain "order." But considering the vast resources of the Golkar political machine--for example, Wiranto was able to hire roadside food vendors across the country to use his name as a brand--his third-place showing was still a sign of weakness.

In fact, a closer look shows that a growing number of Indonesians are rejecting Golkar, Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) and other establishment parties--all of which are seen as hopelessly corrupt. SBY, a longtime military bureaucrat, played to this sentiment with populist rhetoric that allowed his campaign to take off with little organizational base.

Although he served under Suharto, the U.S.-educated SBY now claims to reject the military's role in politics. He claims another general-turned-politician, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, as his model--and has longstanding ties to Washington.

In the capital city of Jakarta, SBY's party, the Democratic Party, scored 20 percent of the vote in the April elections. Another new party, the Islamist Justice and Welfare Party, achieved the same percentage. By contrast, the vote for Megawati's PDIP dropped from 33 percent in 1999 to 18 percent.

The past year has seen the creation of other new parties as well--including Islamist parties, business parties, a social democratic party and three populist parties that look to the old Sukarno legacy. "There was much pre-election chatter of a nostalgic swing back to the past based on a popular desire for 'stability,'" wrote Max Lane, an Australian socialist and expert on Indonesia. "But most people are concerned about socioeconomic stability--not political stability."

It isn't hard to understand why. Six years after a devastating economic crisis that swept through Asia and brutal free-market "reforms" demanded by the International Monetary Fund, half the population lives on less than $2 a day. The economic misery is compounded by Megawati's failure to deliver on promised reforms--including subsidies for rice and fuel, clean water, improved medical clinics, better railroads and more teachers.

While the economy is growing, job creation hasn't kept up with the numbers of young people entering the workforce. An estimated two-thirds of Indonesia's 40 million unemployed are between the ages of 15 and 24.

The growing frustration with the political system has created an opportunity for the left. Unfortunately, the Party of United Popular Opposition (POPOR), initiated by the far left People's Democratic Party (PRD), was internally divided over whether to boycott the elections, and failed to qualify once it finally entered the race. That has left the field open for SBY to take up the issue of jobs and promises of reform.

His election is far from assured in the September run-off. Golkar will almost certainly swing behind Megawati in exchange for continued patronage, giving her the combined weight of the two biggest political machines in the country.

Even if SBY is able to tap popular resentment and win in September, this former general with ties to the U.S. is a thoroughly mainstream politician. Fundamental political change in Indonesia will depend on the revival of the mass struggles of the late 1990s.

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