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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOW FOR THE HARD PART

Jakarta must turn a manufactured mandate into lasting stability


THE MILITARY-BACKED RULERS OF Indonesia and Algeria have clearly understood the lesson that their Myanmar counterparts learned the hard way. To win elections against a popular opposition, there is but one fail-safe strategy: ban it. Rather than risk an ignominious result, as Yangon's ruling SLORC junta suffered in 1990, Mr. Suharto in Jakarta and Mr. Liamine Zeroual in Algiers did the sure thing and had their toughest rivals barred from running. Thus, in Indonesia last month and in Algeria last week, government-backed parties won with plenty of votes to spare and, incidentally, without the kind of Western outcry that lambasted SLORC's refusal to accept Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi's landslide victory.

To the ban on Ms. Megawati Sukarnoputri, the feisty daughter of Indonesia's late founding father, the ruling Golkar organization added its usual campaign formula of money, media and muscle. The unprecedented 74% of the vote it garnered, exceeding its declared target of 70.02% and its 68% share in the polls five years ago, also gained from alleged anomalies in balloting and tabulation. And the protests, rioting and arson that marred the polls only helped draw attention from electioneering shenanigans during the 27-day campaign -- with at least 260 killed, the most violent in Indonesia ever.

Now for the real test: translating that manufactured mandate into lasting stability. Even as they pat one another on the back for their new majority in the House of Representatives, the leaders of Golkar know the hard part has yet to come. They will have to eventually address the growing anger of Indonesians over political repression, economic disparities, corruption and cronyism. Those ills have ignited brushfires of unrest across Indonesia and rallied thousands behind Ms. Megawati and bolder dissidents like ousted opposition legislator Sri Bintang Pamungkas. It would be dangerous folly, born of hubris, to blithely let the social wounds fester untended.

That Indonesia has not erupted in archipelago-wide agitation owes much not just to the military's tight grip but more to the technocrats' showcase policies. Sound economic management has lifted tens of millions of Indonesians out of poverty in the three decades of Mr. Suharto's rule. But prosperity has also spawned unrest among those left behind by the boom. The fruits of graft and favoritism are much bigger and harder to hide. Just 3% of Indonesians own most of the nation's wealth, while some 22 million people still languish in destitution. Meanwhile, the middle class, better educated and informed, is less and less willing to follow without question.

Of these woes, probably the most galling are corruption and cronyism, which make a mockery of the Constitution's promise to share the benefits of economic activity among all Indonesians in a "family-like" way. To more and more citizens, it seems a clique of families has long been dividing up an obscene chunk of the national pie. At the hustings, the name of Mr. Eddy Tanzil often came up; the businessman was jailed for corruption in 1994 over a $650-million loan from a state bank. He escaped last year after bribing his guards.

Then there is the Timor, the so-called national car produced in South Korea and exempted from import and luxury levies -- only the latest of many government-favored ventures controlled by the president's family. A recent study conducted by the Australian National University for major companies in Australia and Asia, found that Mr. Suharto's government has "squirreled away" billions of dollars in oil revenues to spend without Parliament's approval. Another discretionary fund is one generated by a 2% wealth tax, supposedly intended to help the poor but yet to show solid results.

Complicating matters is the lack of any credible successor to the country's aging leader, who turned 76 on June 8. Instead of focusing on national concerns, Indonesia's most powerful politicians have to keep one eye on the jockeying for No. 2. Pushing long-term solutions seems futile since the long term is far from clear. Last week came the latest flurry of chatter on who was being groomed for the vice presidency. Armed forces chief Hartono is to become information minister. Is he now the v.p.-to-be? Only one man knows.

Needless to say, all the speculation and maneuvering do little to root out the causes of unrest, which will keep the Megawatis and Pamungkases coming, ban or no ban. More than winning Mr. Suharto's endorsement, making headway against those ills is what the designated No. 2 will have to do to show that he or she can actually last in power. For if the riots are worrisome now, one can imagine what they will be like once the "smiling general" is no longer around. Even the army cannot be absolutely counted on to back a successor who is unable or unwilling to fight the ills swelling the irate crowds.

The task for the Indonesian leadership is clear. Select and elect a strong vice president soon. Help him or her build support in the government, the army and the public. Then let the No. 2 take effective steps to alleviate poverty, scale back cronyism and promote democracy. Yes, democracy. Better for the next leader of Indonesia to learn how to work the crowds and compete in fair elections now -- well before things really heat up when the inevitable change at the top comes.


This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home

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