Polls not a clear-cut affair?


Just months ago, there was a clear front runner; now the fear is that Indonesia’s direct presidential polls could get messy

Makeshift bamboo shelters and grand marquees in cheerful colours of red, blue, green and yellow have sprouted all over Indonesia.

The 582,000 polling stations that dot the archipelago will open this morning for Indonesians to vote in the country’s first direct presidential election. The electorate runs the gamut from illiterate tribesman in Irian Jaya and Kalimantan to farmers in Java and Sumatra and the young rich in the capital, Jakarta.

About 150 million voters across the 17,000 islands that sprawl 4,800km from west to east – the distance from London to Mecca – will decide who will be the next head of state in the one-day ballot.

But any hope for an early resolution to the protracted election saga is fast dimming. The prospect of a September run-off looms large as the country edges perilously towards an uncertain three-month hiatus.

With no constitutional provision for a smooth transfer of power if President Megawati Sukarnoputri loses this week, Indonesia faces the prospect of an outgoing administration digging in its heels for a bitter fight to the end of its term on Oct 20.

Intensive horse-trading will be needed to forge coalitions aimed at producing an electoral outcome or giving the incumbent and her loyalists ironclad guarantees against recrimination if they are ousted.

At the worst, it could lead to what some believe could be a ‘scorched earth’ strategy in which the remaining elements of the regime would blur their tracks by destroying important state documents, moving millions of dollars worth of national assets and sealing last-minute business deals.

Against this backdrop, violence could rear its ugly head. Clashes between rival supporters could erupt, especially if the President faces a leadership challenge from members of her own party.

Golkar deputy chairman Marzuki Darusman described the next 90 days as ‘a muddling transition’ that would be messy and painful for the loser, the winner and all Indonesians.

‘With the benefit of hindsight, legislators should have come out with clear guidelines,’ he said.

‘But can you blame them? When the laws were drawn up last year, no one expected the incumbent to lose. She was a clear front runner. The assumption then was that it would all end in the first round with her winning a majority.’

Unfortunately, the past five months have seen Ms Megawati’s political star waning. Following the disastrous defeat of her Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) in the April parliamentary elections, she has fallen further in the popularity charts.

But some argue she still has a good chance of getting into the second round. In that scenario, observers like Mr Marzuki believe the palace will ‘go for the kill’ to stay in power.

‘She will step up into higher gear, drawing on the entire state machinery to do her bidding. It will be a period of heightened activism and coalition-building where getting re-elected will be the only preoccupation of the government,’ he said. Of greater concern, however, would be a scenario in which Mega crashes out in the first round. Her failure to get into the second phase could force those in power to make things difficult for the president-in-waiting.

Dr Joyo Winoto, a senior adviser to presidential front runner Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, told The Straits Times: ‘Our concern is that there might be three months of lame-duck government where the focus will be on its own survival.’

He listed a number of outcomes that could occur during such a period, such as:

International confidence in Indonesia could ebb as the government adopts policies aimed at protecting vested interests;

National assets and state documents could be ‘misplaced’; and

There could be moves to engineer political instability.

Some speculate that if Mr Bambang and another former general, Wiranto, face off against each other, it could trigger mass student demonstrations.

Others say there could be violence on the scale of the May 1998 riots that would allow the palace to reassert control or pave the way for hawkish elements in the Indonesian military to step in.

But palace loyalists brush aside such talk as ‘rubbish’ spread by Ms Megawati’s rivals to discredit her.

A senior PDI-P legislator said: ‘Losing power will be a personal blow for Ibu Mega but she will not take revenge by burning down the country. That is not her style.’

But he conceded that there could be ‘uncontrollable elements’ in the government and the party who could take matters into their own hands.

If Ms Megawati is beaten, the blame game could start within the PDI-P, leading to attempts by rival factions to oust her from the chairmanship.

The source said: ‘There could be skirmishes around the country pitting those supporting her against those plotting to throw her out. They could also turn on rival supporters but it will be localised violence, not on a mass scale.’

It has happened before.

In 1999, PDI-P supporters went on the rampage in parts of Indonesia when Ms Megawati failed to clinch the presidency.

At the tactical level, however, the focus of the Megawati administration in the last throes of its power would be to build crucial alliances that could serve a number of aims in its evacuation plans.

In the event of a failure to make it to the run-off, Mr Marzuki believes Ms Megawati and the PDI-P would push all the state resources towards backing one of the contenders.

At the core, in any scenario, are concerns that a new government would mount a campaign to target ministers and senior officials of the past regime for corruption.

Rumours are making the rounds in the capital that vast amounts of money are being transferred to Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.

Besides a scramble for political coalitions, government-linked businesses will be gingerly realigning themselves with emerging economic forces. There could be an 11th-hour surge to get government concessions such as bank credit and lucrative tenders or contracts.

How could a new president counter, at its most extreme, a ‘scorched earth’ policy implemented by those on their way out?

A transition blueprint that Dr Joyo helped to draw up for Mr Bambang, if he is elected, offers some insights.

If the retired general clinches the presidency in Round One, he will be able to initiate negotiations with the palace, the Attorney-General’s Office, the Supreme Court and Bank Indonesia to ensure a smooth power transfer.

Running parallel with this will be moves to build a limited coalition with broad support from both political parties and NGOs. This will help to secure a guarantee from the government that it will stay the course.

Dr Joyo is also contemplating a plan to create an interim ‘shadow government’ in which key members of the Bambang team will be deployed across ministries and state bodies during the period.

The critical issue here is whether the Megawati camp will give in so easily. If it is knocked out in the first round, it has little choice but to deal with the incoming administration. But it is likely to be a bruising encounter.

To register their political clout, Ms Megawati and the PDI-P would most likely gravitate towards Golkar – if it loses the race – to form a grand coalition in Parliament.

The Van Zorge report, a bi-weekly analysis on Indonesian politics, notes that if the race enters a second phase and the results are close, there could be another worst-case scenario in which the election process is burdened by disputes.

If the constitutional courts cannot resolve these problems in the very short time available, there may not be an elected president by Oct 20. The Indonesian Constitution makes no provision for this.

There is an article that allows for power to be handed to a triumvirate comprising the ministers of defence, interior and foreign affairs but the triumvirate would lose legitimacy once the government’s official mandate ends.

It would leave an electorate already suffering from political fatigue with the prospect of greater uncertainty.


1. The incumbent could use state resources to back a contender in Round Two for a bruising battle.

2. To register their political clout, Ms Megawati and the PDI-P could form a grand coalition with Golkar in Parliament. This could leave a new president hobbled.

3. Violence could break out among rival supporters. There could be mass student protests if former generals Bambang and Wiranto enter the second round.

4. Poll disputes could leave Indonesia without a president by Oct 20. The Indonesian Constitution does not make any provision for such a scenario.

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