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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON INDONESIA

Elections Alone Aren't Enough

The promise of democracy is hollow unless the marginalized are included.

May 30, 1999|ANUGERAH PEKERTI | Anugerah Pekerti is a faculty member and former president of the Institute for Management Education and Development in Indonesia and is chair of the board for World Vision Indonesia, a Christian humanitarian aid organization

JAKARTA — Indonesians are skeptical about the June 7 elections.

Having been cheated so many times in the past three decades, we have little faith in the political process. If elections result in a better, more responsive government, democracy will survive. Otherwise, it will be said that Western democracy doesn't work here and we will resort to yet another variant of authoritarian rule that we call Indonesian democracy.

Asia is a continuum of free and authoritarian governments. The latter have argued that poor, uneducated people are incapable of participating in the process of governance. Yet India, the world's most-populous democracy, is largely poor and uneducated, while Singapore has opted to defer civil rights in favor of creating wealth. After decades of economic growth, the people of Singapore are wealthy and educated but still under authoritarian rule.

Are we still not ready for democracy?

In Indonesia, change now is in the hands of the people. Last year's student demonstrations succeeded in doing what decades of orchestrated elections failed to accomplish: bring down the personification of absolute power, President Suharto.

While we experience a respite from oppressive and abusive power, we struggle to replace it with genuine democracy.

Election preparations have been hasty and haphazard. Registering to vote took two visits to a center set up at a health clinic near my home; the registrars were out of forms on my first visit. But I was heartened by the enthusiasm of the young volunteers representing some of Indonesia's 48 political parties.

I, too, was young and enthusiastic when Indonesia held its first free elections in 1955. As a 17-year-old, I actively campaigned for the Indonesian Christian Party. I organized rallies and pasted posters around Jakarta, then proudly cast my vote for democracy.

Regrettably, Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, effectively annulled these elections after only two years. At the time, I supported Sukarno's program of "guided democracy" because, like most of my countrymen, I admired, perhaps adored, him as a leader.

Indonesians learned that unchecked power breeds corruption. Sukarno became supreme ruler by creating conflict and confrontation among various factions. Even the pretense of elections disappeared until Sukarno was replaced by Suharto in 1966.

We had high hopes that these new elections would restore democracy. But the next six elections were rigged to provide cosmetic legitimacy to Suharto's absolute rule. In the first few elections, I voted for the so-called opposition party. After that, I showed up at the polling station to avoid social sanctions, but I refused to vote for any political party. In an era during which speech and the press were suppressed, this anonymous gesture was one of the few means of dissent available to me.

In the past year, we have had freedom for real dissent, and we have managed it badly. Decades of repressive regimes have not prepared us to tolerate diversity. The drive to win too often is expressed in violent behavior. Riots and other violence have been fueled by Indonesia's economic crisis: Young people with no jobs and no hope have taken their frustrations to the streets.

But the same sudden freedom that has enabled this destructive lawlessness also has resulted, in a few instances, in constructive behavior, as evidenced by the young, educated election volunteers and the young people in poor communities who are working for justice and economic change.

As I hope it wobbles toward democracy, the world's fourth most-populous country will require the participation of all its 205 million people, including those who have been marginalized by decades of economic, social and political injustice: young people, women, the poor and the uneducated.

Whomever emerges from the elections, he and all other residents of my country should heed the words Alexis de Tocqueville wrote nearly 175 years ago, "Democratic nations care but little for what has been, but they are haunted by visions of what will be."

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