Indonesia's mysteries don't include elections The West knows little of this Pacific nation, but vote is preordained

February 23, 1997|By Murray Seeger

WHEN THE PEOPLE of Indonesia go to their polls in June, they will have no doubt which political party will win. Like the other "guided" democracies of Southeast Asia, Indonesia has made sure that its ruling party cannot be seriously challenged.

Still, there is political ferment across this giant land of 200 million people spread over 17,000 islands, 3,200 miles east to west - roughly Baltimore to San Francisco. The issue of presidential succession has taken first place in the fourth largest country in the world and one of its most successful economies.

Once considered ungovernable because of its geographic spread and ethnic complexity, Indonesia has prospered under the rule of President Suharto, a former general whose partner in government is the military. They overthrew President Sukarno in 1965-66 and smashed an attempted coup by the Indonesian Communist Party that left hundreds of thousands dead.

That civil war has been the rationale for the authoritarian rule Suharto and the military have enforced over the decades. Since Asian communists were identified with China, Indonesia inspired formation of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) as a front against a Chinese expansion. Indonesia still dominates ASEAN as it transforms itself into a trading bloc.

Succession speculation ignited when Suharto went to Germany last July for medical treatment shortly after his 75th birthday and only two months after the death of his wife. Since then, Indonesia has wondered if he would run for a seventh term or designate a successor as president or vice president.

In this sensitive time, it is clear that Americans know very little about the country. Visitors are surprised to find out how open discussion within the country is about the politics and such controversies as corruption and nepotism, despite the repression of opposition. These elements make it difficult for the United States to develop closer relations with the Jakarta government despite their strong and mutual interests.

Indonesia averaged 7 percent annual expansion in the last five years. Per capita income in 1967 was half that of India and Bangladesh. Now, approaching $1,200, the figure is double India's and triple that in Bangladesh. Still, there is an immense income disparity between the largest cities, Jakarta and Soerabaya, and rural areas.

As with most of Asia, American companies have been late to discover the potential of this growing market. Jakarta, its streets jammed with cars, its air filled with pollution and its skyline decorated with dozens of high-rise cranes, is the biggest boom town in Asia.

Indonesia would like to increase its economic ties to the United States and reduce the influence Japan has over the economy and shelter discreetly behind the U.S. security shield. Japan is still remembered for its brutal occupation of Indonesia - then the Netherlands East Indies - during World War II, while it is admired for economic success. China and India are suspect for military ambitions.

The Indonesian knowledge vacuum is to a large extent the government's doing. It discourages visits by foreign journalists and has great difficulty in explaining itself to the world. Indonesia employs two major U.S. public relations firms, but they have been unable to remove the tarnish on the country's reputation in light of recent crackdowns against political dissidents.

In recent months, the leader of one opposition party was forced out of office, while the leaders of a smaller party and the country's only independent union were charged with subversion. Three critical weeklies were closed in 1994, but the remaining press organs continually challenge the government's policies.

Jakarta faces continued U.S. pressure for repressing trade union rights and international opprobrium for failing to negotiate a solution to its 20-year repression of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony on the east edge of Indonesia.

Most mysteriously, the government keeps the country's most famous author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who is 71, nearly blind and in poor health, under house arrest. Toer, who was jailed as a radical by the Dutch colonial government and the Suharto government, was recently secretly awarded a UNESCO prize for promoting peace, tolerance and nonviolence.

To his credit, President Suharto has campaigned to keep the inflammatory question of religion out of Indonesian politics. While 85 percent of the population is Muslim - making it the largest Muslim country - there are important Christian, Buddhist and Hindu constituencies who have official recognition. Suharto is closely allied with the small but extremely powerful Chinese community, which sometimes faces bitter indigenous resentment.

The June election is for the 500-seat House of Representatives, where the ruling party, Golkar, holds 282 seats, including 100 reserved for military representatives. The military contingent is scheduled to drop to 75 in the next house, but the two main opposition parties have little chance to challenge the country-wide reach of Golkar.

Change at the top will come when Suharto announces his plans for 1998, when 1,000 members of the People's Assembly will elect the president. Half of the Assembly comes from the House of Representatives and the other half are appointed, assuring Golkar's choice will win. As long as his health endures, all decisions emanate from Suharto.

Murray Seeger is a long-time foreign and Washington correspondent who recently visited Indonesia.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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