TCS Daily

Presidential Paradox

By Yang Razali Kassim - August 18, 2004 12:00 AM

Last month's presidential election in Indonesia has been described as a historic turning point which ushered Indonesians into the "post-Majapahit" era. For much of their history, Indonesians had known either autocratic or authoritarian rule. In the early centuries, they were subservient to kings, such as the rulers of the Majapahit kingdom. Then during the colonial era, they succumbed to four centuries of Dutch repression. The freedom to choose their own leaders came only with independence in 1945. But the first president, Sukarno, later introduced "Guided Democracy" until he was deposed in 1966. His successor, Suharto, did preside over several parliamentary and presidential elections over the last three decades, but these were cleverly-controlled political exercises whose outcomes were largely predictable. Suharto got himself re-elected several times through presidential elections carried out by the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR). This assembly of elected and nominated legislators was however dominated by his key political machinery, Golkar. But the July 5 presidential election this year broke new ground when it allowed the people to, for the first time, directly elect their president - that is, without having to go through an electoral college in the MPR.

Five presidential candidates took part, each with a vice-presidential running mate. The results were quite stunning as voters rejected incumbency and voted for change and rejuvenation. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired general, emerged as the most popular choice for president, with Yusuf Kalla as his vice-president. He won 33.6 percent of the votes. Incumbent president Megawati Sukarnoputri was edged out into second place, with 26 percent, while another retired general, Wiranto, came in third with 22 percent. The popular reformist leader, Amien Rais, who was instrumental in toppling Suharto in 1998, was left even further behind in fourth place with 15 percent as voters rooted for the promise of change offered by the Bambang-Kalla pair. Indonesians were clearly tired of Megawati's weak government. Bambang's support base cuts across ideological, ethnic and religious affiliations, according to an exit poll released two days after the July 5 vote by the local research body, LP3ES, and the United States-based National Democratic Institute (NDI).

Some of his supporters might be tempted to cast the swing towards Bambang as a "revolt of the masses" and treat him as the messianic Satrio Piningit - the long-awaited Javanese hero-warrior. But is he indeed the "savior" who will lead Indonesians out of their miseries and into the golden age of abundance and harmony? Or is his current popularity just a passing fancy that would fizzle out in the tortuous course of Indonesia's political transition, post-Suharto? It is important to bear in mind that this direct presidential election is a two-stage affair. There will be a run-off on September 20 between the top two winners, Bambang and Megawati, because no one could secure more than 50 percent of the total votes.

It is not a certainty that Bambang will emerge as the winner in Round II, even though he has the advantage currently. Many of the losers in Round I may not throw their support behind him. In fact, Golkar has confirmed this week that it has decided to forge an alliance with Megawati. In other words, Megawati will have a good chance of getting the support of two of the largest parties in Indonesia: Golkar and her own Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). Together, Golkar and PDIP will have a combined reach to much of Indonesia. Together, they hold a formidable control over parliament (DPR) as they are the two largest parties in the House. So, even if Bambang wins eventually and forms the next government, he may face a hostile parliament that can easily block his policies and eventually bring his government down.

Bambang however is not likely to keep quiet about the prospect of losing, or of facing a hostile parliament. The saving factor for him is that in this first direct presidential election, voters will speak their own mind. In Round I, many Golkar and PDIP members ignored party directives and voted for other presidential candidates, including Bambang. So, there is also no certainty that Megawati will be re-elected even though she has managed to secure the support of Golkar.

Round II will therefore be a fight to the finish; all gloves will be off. A bloody outcome is not unlikely. Already, many people are beginning to worry about the prospect of a thin margin of victory, which could lead to disputes and even violence. The coming showdown on September 20 between Bambang and Megawati will be a clash between two Cabinet colleagues turned bitter rivals, following the former's less-than-friendly departure from the Megawati cabinet. Bambang, who was a security minister in the outgoing Megawati cabinet, was forced to quit when Megawati's husband, Taufik Kiemas, was not happy that Bambang harbored his own presidential ambitions. Because of the rivalry, both candidates will go all-out to kill each other's chances. They will do so by winning over as much support as possible from the losing candidates and their train of followers. Who both sides get to win over will depend on what incentives they can dangle.

But so far, Bambang is losing the game of barter politics to Megawati. He is not prepared to trade support for her with cabinet seats. But Megawati has promised Golkar at least eight cabinet seats for Golkar leaders in return for the party's support. Bambang is also being hit by accusations that he is a "stooge" of the United States. This image will be further exploited to weaken his chances in the second round. In fact, the "missiles" were fired as early as July 9 - four days after the July 5 Round I presidential election. The large-circulating Kompas daily on that day ran a front-page headline story which reported that the outgoing cabinet discussed ministers' concern about "foreign intervention" in the current election - presumably through candidates like Bambang.

So, despite all his popularity and the direct support of some 38 million people that cuts across party lines and ethnic as well as religious affiliations, Bambang may actually be the weakest leader since Sukarno. This is the paradox of Indonesia's first direct presidential election. That is why some are already predicting that his government may not last two or three years, just like the previous government of Abdurrahman Wahid, which Megawati took over from. In short, Indonesia's first direct presidential election will not end Indonesia's problems in political transition. The post-Suharto transition will take at least another direct presidential election in 2009 before the dust of change finally settles.


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