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Issue 40, July/Aug 1999

Indonesian elections

A FESTIVE mood pervaded the general election in Indonesia on 7 June. More than a year after the overthrow of the 32-year Suharto dictatorship, the long-suffering, poverty-stricken people hoped it marked the ending of a bad dream and the opening of a new era.

Well over 110 million voters - as much as 90% of the registered electorate - flocked to 300,000 polling booths across the sprawling archipelago. Few incidents of violence or intimidation by state forces were reported and only in the troubled region of Aceh was polling prevented by armed independence fighters.

Whole communities turned out not only to vote but to watch the counting. They wanted to savour the moment when the old dictator's party - Golkar - would finally be forced to accept defeat. The boos and jeers when 'Golkar' was mentioned by election officials were such that they began apologising in advance if they had to refer to this utterly discredited party! Votes for opposition parties like the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), led by Megawati Sukarnopoutri, were greeted with jubilation.

But as the days passed and it became clear that neither Golkar nor the army had departed from the political scene, anxiety increased. Widespread ballot-rigging and vote-buying was uncovered. If the result gives victory to Golkar, even bourgeois commentators predict a resurgence of mass demonstrations.

Revolutions are not just one act - the seizure of power - but a process of heightened class struggle which can last for days, months or even years. A revolutionary party is needed to channel the anger and frustrations of the urban and rural workers and poor against their common enemy, the capitalist class. With recent confirmation that Indonesia's economy is continuing to contract, and with new political uncertainties created by the election, many potential new crises can be discerned as election euphoria gives way to new tensions.

  Capitalists internationally look to the elections to close what they consider was an ugly chapter in Indonesian history. Their interests and even the survival of capitalism had been repeatedly challenged in the stormy period of revolutionary upheavals and reactionary riots. When it looked as if the elections had passed off relatively peacefully, and that political power would rest with 'free-market' capitalist parties, shares on the Jakarta stock exchange leapt 12.2% in one day (8 June)! The currency, the rupiah, also recovered some ground on the dollar. (During the Asian crisis in 1997, the rupiah had plummetted and the economy 'shrank' by over 50%.) Now, future political uncertainties has seen this reversed. The Dow Jones agency reported (10 June) that shares fell again by 3.3%.

Additional problems loom in the run-up to East Timor's referendum on autonomy originally due in early August. UN and Amnesty International observers have demanded a postponement. President BJ Habibie denies their accusations that the Indonesian military are behind the killings and daily human rights abuses. Well-armed and trained local integrationist militia are stepping up their campaign to 'persuade' the Maubere people not to vote against keeping East Timor as the 27th province of Indonesia.

A new regime will not favour implementing Habibie's promise of independence for East Timor if autonomy is rejected. Nor will it be able to solve the numerous national and ethnic conflicts that have seen hundreds of people slaughtered and thousands fleeing their homes in the past half year.

Megawati is looked to as someone who can introduce genuine democracy. But she does not recognise the basic right to self-determination for the nationalities so bloodily suppressed under the iron heel of Suharto's dictatorship. Such is the strength of feeling in areas like Aceh and Irian Jaya, as well as East Timor itself, that if any government tries to hold the country together by force, there will be no end of new crises. In Aceh, it proved impossible to complete the parliamentary elections due to the hostility of an independence movement that has been conducting an armed struggle since the 1970s.

  Hideous ethnic and religious conflicts have flared up in the recent period - in Jakarta, Eastern Java, the Moluccan (Spice) Islands, and elsewhere. These conflicts have their origins in the economic and social collapse of the past two years. Long-buried rivalries have been stirred up, often by 'outsiders' widely suspected of being army-linked, as society is thrown back towards barbarism.

Recent figures show the Indonesian economy still contracting. (Imports for the first four months of 1999 have declined by 20% and exports by 14%.) Inflation reached 58% in 1998. The Asian Development Bank commented on a "30% drop in real salaries, rising crime rates, reduced participation in education and an estimated 24% drop in household expenditure during the crisis". (Financial Times, 21 June)

The PDI-P has no programme for reversing this collapse. But, if it becomes the major party in the 500-seat House of Representatives (DPR) and forms a government, there will be huge expectations on the part of the 50% of the population who live below the poverty line. They want immediate and tangible improvements in the conditions of everyday life. Tens of millions have given Megawati their enthusiastic support. They turned out en masse for election rallies that engulfed the centre of Jakarta in a sea of red - PDI's traditional colour. They voted for her as the daughter of Sukarno - the first president of post-war independent Indonesia who was violently thrown out of office by Suharto in 1965.

Megawati claims to be a true friend of the poor, but on a capitalist basis she is doomed to dissappoint them. Workers want the right to organise and strike, and a big increase in wages just to make ends meet. The students at the fore of the movement against military dictatorship will also remain dissatisfied: Megawati has no intention of removing the armed forces from politics; nor will she cede to their demand that Suharto is tried and his fortune confiscated. Whatever magical properties the population may credit her with, she cannot serve two masters - the burgeoning poor, and the IMF and fat cats of her own class and country.

The smaller opposition party of Amien Rais - the National Mandate Party (PAN) - with around 33 seats, may hold the balance of power. If the PDI-P refuses to accept them into coalition, it could end up depending on the support of the 38 appointed army representatives! The army - along with 200 local council and other government 'representatives' - will sit with 462 elected representatives in the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR). The MPR will decide the next president, so this puts the bias heavily in favour of conservative and reactionary forces.

  The more bigotted Islamic organisations are exerting pressure on the PDI-P not to allow a woman to become president. There is talk of Megawati standing down in favour of the Commander of the Armed Forces - General Wiranto. This could cause an explosion of anger: Wiranto was fully involved in the previous regime and has no intention of renouncing his military career.

The momentum of the mass movement which brought down Suharto forced Habibie's crisis-government to make many concessions and reforms. But half-measures anger and frustrate those who want more and those who lose out. Capitalism in Indonesia has been battered but not beaten.

The left-centrist organisation - the Democratic People's Party (PRD) - has pointed to a favourable situation for building their party, as the limitations of Megawati and other 'democratic' politicians are exposed. Undoubtedly this is true, given its roots in the working class, amongst the urban poor and many of the student activists.

The PRD correctly argued for participation in the elections. Some student organisations had called for a boycott because the proceedures were still far from democratic and because of the military's continued involvement.

At the time of writing, the PRD is 36th out of the 48 parties on the electoral list. During the campaign it talked openly about the need for socialism. But for this to become a reality it should be linked to demands that answer the immediate needs of the workers and poor. Any democratic regime that emerges out of these elections represents a step forward from dictatorship. But it is necessary to argue that the enormous economic and social problems cannot be solved on a capitalist basis.

It is the task of revolutionaries to build and strengthen the organisations of struggle in Indonesia and warn workers not to trust politicians who say there is no alternative to capitalism. They have to argue the case for a socialist transformation in Indonesia and build links with workers in South-East Asia and internationally to end the rule of capital and all dictators.

Kerry Morgan

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