Monday, April 05, 2004

Technical Hitches Aside, Poll Shows Democracy's Gains

Andreas Harsono

Jakarta, Apr 5 (IPS) - Monday's parliamentary election ran into logistical and technical problems like ballots that failed to reach polling places in time, but the conduct of the vote affirms the democratic path Indonesia has been treading since the Suharto regime ended six years ago.

More than 140 million Indonesians went to the voting booths Monday morning, a massive logistical exercise for the world's fourth most populous country with a
wide mix of ethnic communities that speak hundreds of languages.

Monday's election involved more than 5.2 million poll officials working in nearly 600,000 polling stations in the world's largest archipelago.

The vote also marked the start of a complicated - one commentator called it ''mind-boggling'' -- process of voting for different sets of officials across Indonesia. On Monday, voters chose from more than 7,700 candidates, coming from 24 political parties, for the 550-member parliament, apart from tens of thousands of other candidates for regional, provincial and local legislatures.

The election will be a three-step process. A direct poll for president will be held in July, and if no candidate has won more than 50 percent of the vote, which is very likely, a final presidential election will be held in September.

As of Monday evening, reports of logistical hitches flowed in from different parts of the archipelago - but the successful conduct of free and fair elections in Indonesia will bolster its still emerging democracy. The European Union sent its largest-ever electoral monitoring mission composed of more than 230 observers across Indonesia.

In a commentary titled 'Elections are for tomorrow, not for today', analyst Wimar Witoelar said the holding of the vote is success by itself: ''The trouble spots in the world command the major news stories, because of their direct impact on the home countries of the global news services. It is not newsworthy to report the sigh of relief which is spreading throughout the archipelago.''

Some parts of the country were not able to organise the election because the documents were printed incorrectly or were not delivered at all. In such cases, voting would have to be held Tuesday or Wednesday, said Election Commissioner Nasruddin Syamsuddin.

Indonesian media reported that the election was not held in some parts of Central Sulawesi, West Sumatra, Nusa Tenggara Timur in eastern Indonesia. Papua, the resource-rich island in eastern Indonesia, also faced similar problems.

Central Sulawesi Governor Aminuddin Ponulele said around 200,000 or around 10 percent of voters in his province did not get their voting registration documents. Dominggus Mandacan, the regent of Manokwari regency in Papua, was quoted by Antara news agency as saying that 48 of 585 voting booths in his area could not organise the election. ''The organisers simply had not received the voting papers,'' said Mandacan.

Vice President Hamzah Haz called the administration of this election worse than the 1999 one. ''Two of my sons just recently received their voting cards. They are the sons of the vice president. What happened to others?''

In places like Aceh province in northern Sumatra, police said around 50 villages there did not hold the election because they are still under the control of the Free Aceh Movement that seeks independence from Jakarta. It is still not clear how many percent of the approximately 147 million eligible voters were not able to cast their ballots.

But many took seriously Monday's vote - the day was declared a national holiday for the balloting.

''I have been on the street since nine this morning and only at one pm people were seen on the streets again,'' said Karno, a driver of the Express Taxi, adding that he only got three passengers during the four-hour period because people headed for their polling precincts in Jakarta.

The Palmerah traditional market, a bustling bazaar for vegetables, meat, fishes and other food, near the Parliament building, was also half-empty Monday morning.

The national tally of the votes, announced from Hotel Borobudur in downtown Jakarta, showed only insignificant results Monday night of few thousand votes counted. Given the size of Indonesia, it may take nine days or more before national results can be completed.

But analysts and voters are watching out for trends and key political battles in the election.

In East Java, Indonesia's second most populous province, President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDIP) was competing
fiercely with the Nation Awakening Party of former president Abdurrahman Wahid.

Megawati voted in her neighbourhood in the Menteng area in the heart of Jakarta. Surprisingly, vote counting in her elite neighbourhood was in favour of two little-known parties. The first place went to the Democrat Party with 45 votes. The second place went to Peace and Prosperous Party.

Megawati's PDIP secured the third place with 34 votes. The fourth place with 24 cotes went to Golkar Party, which was established by Suharto in the 1960s and whose political fortunes many expect to improve in this election.

Surveys show Megawati's PDIP in a tight race with rival Golkar. While Megawati
is ahead of Golkar's leading candidate Akbar Tandjung, an International Foundation for Election Systems poll of 4,000 respondents that was concluded on Mar. 28 found that Golkar has the most party support, with 22.2 percent. That is almost double the 11.5 percent share of support PDIP received in the poll.

The aging Suharto himself voted in another voting booth in Menteng. Coming out of his house with a walking stick, the 82-year-old Suharto did not respond to reporters' questions, but smiled and waved his hands.

Opinion polls also show Megawati trailing for the first time in the presidential race set for July. She was lagging behind her former chief security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a respected retired general who leads the Democrat Party and quit the Cabinet in March after a row with Megawati.

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