Bumper Ballot in Indonesia

In the world's most populous Muslim country, the people went to the polls last Monday, to elect a new parliament and new regional, provincial, and district assemblies. No less than 24 parties are in the running. None of them has a clear-cut manifesto.

In the world's most populous Muslim country, the people went to the polls last Monday to elect a new parliament and new regional, provincial, and district assemblies. No less than 24 parties are in the running. None of them has a clear-cut manifesto. Hendra Pasuhuk files this report.

photo: AP
Megawati’s image on a water container

​​Several elections have been held simultaneously in Indonesia on 5 April. In addition to choosing the members of the national parliament (DPR, the People's Representative Assembly), the electorate in Indonesia will be voting on the make-up of the recently established Regional Representative Assembly (DPD).

And it doesn't end there. They will also elect the country's provincial and district assemblies (DPRD). In short, the country is facing a bumper ballot: 147 million voters will decide the fate of almost 16,000 mandates.

Twenty-four parties are contesting the elections and campaigning for the 550 seats in the national parliament. But that isn't the only thing being decided by the parliamentary elections: the parties' results will also determine who runs for president and vice-president in the election on 5 July. According to the Indonesian system, the people elect their president and vice-president directly - as a "twin pack", so to speak.

If none of the pairs of candidates gets over 50 per cent of the vote - which is very likely to be the case - there will be a second ballot on 20 September. There are already wild speculations about possible coalitions. When it comes to getting into power, none of the parties have either ideological limitations or incompatible policy platforms.

Last elections dominated by five parties

Five political parties emerged from the last parliamentary elections in 1999 as a political force: with 33.8 per cent of the vote, the Indonesian Democratic Party Struggle (PDIP) headed by President Megawati Sukarnoputri was the strongest party.

The former governing party, Golkar, followed a distant second with 22.5 per cent; then the National Awakening Party (PKB) with 12.6 per cent, the United Development Party (PPP) with 10.7 per cent, and the National Mandate Party (PAN) with 7.1 per cent.

The PDIP, Golkar, and PPP all existed in the Suharto era, while the PKB and PAN - two parties with a Muslim orientation - were founded after the former dictator was toppled. The PKB was founded by the popular Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid.

Islamic parties also standing in the elections

Wahid is considered a liberal and a moderate and is head of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU, loosely translates as the Awakening of Islamic Scholars), Indonesia's largest Muslim organisation. But not all NU members support Wahid and his PKB. Conservatives within the NU sympathise more with Hamzah Haz's PPP.

The other Muslim party, PAN, was founded by the dynamic Muslim intellectual Amien Rais. Rais is also the chairman of the Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second-largest Muslim organisation. He became popular in 1998 for supporting the student protests and openly taking a stand against the then dictator, Suharto.

Both the PKB and PAN do not officially refer to themselves as Islamic parties; they prefer the label "nationalist". Both parties reject the idea of an Islamic state and promote pluralism and democracy.

The PPP and its leader, Hamzah Haz, do not take such a clear stance on these points. While Haz rejects the idea of an Islamic state in public because, as he says, "it would not receive the backing of the majority anyway", the PPP is in favour of the administration of Islamic justice which, according to Haz, should be applied "initially in a few regions".

President to be elected directly by the people

Even though the PDIP emerged as the clear winner in the 1999 parliamentary elections, Megawati was not elected president by the People’s Consultative Council. The PDIP initially refused to conduct coalition negotiations with other parties; it wanted to rule alone.

But the other freshly-elected members of parliament refused to be cowed by such arrogance. They negotiated a deal and elected Abdurrahman Wahid president instead. Megawati had to make do with the post of vice-president.

But Wahid's superiority soon got the better of him as well: he later denounced the parliament as a kindergarten. The parliament reacted to this affront by promptly removing him from office, making peace with Megawati, and electing her president and Hamzah Haz vice-president.

But the politicians soon recognised the weaknesses of the old system and changed the electoral laws. This is why the president will in future no longer be elected by the People’s Consultative Council, but instead directly by the electorate.

Little experience of voting patterns

President Megawati Sukarnoputri's party on Wednesday had a slight lead over its main rival, the Golkar Party of former dictator Suharto, with 18 percent of the vote counted in parliamentary elections. The official tally from Monday's polls put Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle at 20.8 percent of the estimated 124 million votes cast, with Golkar just behind at 20.02 percent.

Because of communication difficulties between the thousands of islands in the Indonesian archipelago, results from the polls are expected to continue trickling in over the next several days.

While Megawati's PDIP has lost popularity in recent times, the president herself is still considered the most popular figure in Indonesia. Another interesting point is that none of the 24 parties running in the election has a detailed manifesto. The differences between the parties are usually restricted to their general image and the images of their candidates.

New system of representation favours major parties

The new electoral system is much more complicated than before because, for the first time ever, proportional representation is being used. Voters can now elect politicians directly. At the same time, the new system favours the major parties: a fact that does not yet seem to have dawned on many politicians in Indonesia.

Disputes regarding counts and the distribution of seats are, therefore, to be expected. Moreover, the national election commission has been experiencing problems producing and delivering the required 600 million ballot papers. In view of the deadline pressure, ballot papers containing what are referred to as "minor errors" are now being released for use.

30 million voting for the first time

Regardless of which way the elections go, 5 April is only the first stage in Indonesia's election marathon. Next up is the presidential election. Neither the parties nor the politicians have much time to lose: as soon as there are reliable figures regarding the parliamentary mandates, they will have to start preparing their next election campaign.

Hendra Pasuhuk


Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan