A massive vote for democracy

Indonesia: Free election turnout argues for change even before results from 113 million ballots are counted.

June 10, 1999

IT WAS one of the world's great testimonies to democracy, an election demanding change in which practically everyone eligible voted. A revolution by ballot. On Monday, Indonesia enjoyed the second free election in its history. The first was in 1955.

Counting 113 million paper ballots may take weeks. Not everyone will believe the announced result. But the main message is in. In this orderly and nonviolent election, the Indonesian people repudiated the heritage of 32 years of dictatorship by Suharto and called for fundamental change. That is clear. Golkar, the party of President B. J. Habibie and former President Suharto, had the money, organization and media but has as much as acknowledged it did not win.

This was an election for 462 of 500 seats in parliament; the others are appointed by the military command. Another 200 appointees will join them in an electoral college that will choose a president in November. So the generals, flunkies and cronies of the old dictator can still steal or nullify the election.

With 48 parties contesting, none would likely win an absolute majority. The party led by Megawati Sukarnoputri jumped to an immediate lead, approaching 40 percent. She is the gentle and noncommunicative daughter of the late President Sukarno, a left-wing founder of the Third World movement in the 1950s.

Aside from symbolizing the ideals rather than realities associated with her father, her views and likely policies are shrouded. It's too early to say that a winning coalition will form around Megawati, as she is universally known, but rash to expect anything else.

The optimism of the experience caused a 12-percent jump in the Jakarta stock exchange, one of the biggest one-day bull markets ever. This quickly gave way to suspicions over the painfully slow count.

Mr. Habibie has done more to pilot Indonesia toward economic recovery and honest government than anyone expected in the year since he succeeded his mentor Suharto, who was hounded from office by riots. This election is his greatest achievement.

It would be disastrous folly, however tempting to those accustomed to power, to negate that now with a fixed count or an assembly in November that rebukes the mandate.

Pub Date: 6/10/99

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