Sunday, March 01, 1998

Indonesia readies for selection of president

Suharto opponents ‘without hope’

Andreas Harsono
The Nation, March 1, 1998

JAKARTA – A political comedy is to begin in Indonesia today when the ageing President Suharto officially opens the convention of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR).

It is widely expected that the 1.000 strong MPR will re-elect Suharto for his seventh five-years term in office next week as well as to elect Research and Technology Minister BJ Habibie, a close aide to Suharto, to become the vice president.

It’s an open secret here that almost 80 percent of MPR members do not have their individual votes. Half of them, he directly appoints and the remainder are legislators, of which 75 are active military officers appointed by Suharto. Only 425 were selected in a tightly-controlled general election in May last year.

"They must okey the instruction of their parties whose heads are tightly-selected Suharto goons,” said political scientist Arief Budiman of the University of Melbourne.

Critics say that the expensive presidential election, starting today and running until March 11, is merely a show for the outside world. The opposition parties are tamed. Suharto did not hesitate to order the removal of opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri and replace her with a puppet leader in June 1996. 

But pressure are mounting against Suharto, especially after the rupiah nosedived against the US dollar in August last year, creating a serious political and economic crisis which has doubled, if not tripled, prices.

Riots broke out in over 30 towns and villages as some military officers had allegedly instigated anti-Chinese sentiment to divert public anger from Suharto toward the relatively affluent minority.

Meanwhile, the Jakarta elite are also speculating on what former US vice president Walter Mondale will say when he meets Suharto on Tuesday or Wednesday. US President Bill Clinton had assigned Mondale to officially express his “grave concern” about Suharto’s Indonesia.

White House staff said Mondale is also expected to diplomatically ask Suharto to implement the agreement that Suharto had signed with the International Monetary Fund on Jan 15 to start economic reform.

In an apparent bid to protect the business interests of his children, Suharto had tried to water down the deal which asked him to scrap monopolies and other sate facilities dedicated to his children and cronies.

Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai is also expected to arrive here today for a two-day visit. His schedule to meet Suharto to convey his support for the restoration of Indonesia’s economy.

Muslim leader Amin Rais, with whio Megawati had built an alliance, said on Thursday that he would like to give Suharto and BJ Habibie a chance, “I’m neutral. All I want to say is let’s give them a fair chance.” 

But he warned the two that he will lead Manilla-style “People’s Power” rallies if Suharto fails to solve the economic crisis within six months.

“So everyone would do well to watch closely what comes after the sessions. If prices of basic foodstuffs continue to soar, while people will go hungry, this could lead to upheaval," said Amien, the chairman of the Muhammadiyah organisation.

Jakarta streets are decorated with huge billboards saying, “Selamat Bersidang Para Wakil Rakyat” or "Sukseskan Sidang Umum MPR” which respectively translate as “Have a Good Meeting People’s Representative” and “Let’s Make the MPR Session a Success.” 

The capital also has much more percent military and intelligence department presence, Soldiers were seen at every shopping mall and plainclothes officers constantly talked into walkie-talkies. Several large military helicopters also hovered over Jakarta.

Gatot Subroto street, where the parliament building is located, also had regular traffic jams as police closed half of the street for security checks, while machine gun-toting soldiers on motorcycles patrolled the city.

Jakarta military commander Maj Gen Sjafrie Sjamsuddin, another Suharto goon, said recently that 25.000 police and army personnel are stationed in Jakarta for the convention.

Independent observers, however, doubted the figure, saying that 25.000 police officers are only enough to control the city’s traffic.

"It must be approximately 300.000,” said a western diplomat. 

More than 600 print journalists, 246 photographers and 350 foreign newsmen are accredited to cover the convention, but the organiser has not set up a media centre.

State owned TV station TVRI assigned more than 200 media workers to live broadcast, the so-called presidential election, as one presenter claimed that it is necessary for the whole of Indonesia to watch "the practice of our Pancasila democracy”.

Pancasila is the name of Indonesia’s state ideology which adheres to the belief in the Almighty One, humanity, unity of the country, democracy and social justice.

But in practice the Suharto government uses the ideology as a pretext to crack down on the opposition, jail students and even to corrupt the Constitution. 

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