Indonesian poll may have surprises

Thirty minutes before the polls open in Jakarta, the men wearing the orange vests of Indonesia’s national election commission have struck just the right absurdist chord.

    President Megawati Sukarnoputri faces grim forecasts

    Blaring from massive speakers beneath a polling station tent in a quiet, working-class neighbourhood is Ray Parker Jr's 20-year-old hit:



    "There's something weird,


    In the neighbourhood,


    Who're you gonna call?




    It was not the sort of wake-up call Indonesians associate with election day. They are more used to the so-called "dawn raids" from candidates who swap bags of rice, packaged noodles and hard currency for votes.


    Then again, with pollsters reporting up to one-third of the country’s voters undecided a week before the elections, there may be plenty of surprises as results roll in from what the International Foundation for Electoral Systems billed as the most daunting logistical exercise in the recent history of democracy.


    An estimated 147 million Indonesians are eligible to punch ballots for the 550-seat national parliament (DPR), local and provincial legislatures in this first round of a reformed electoral process.


    The country’s first direct presidential elections follow in July.


    Massive rallies



    The month-long election campaign culminated with massive rallies of paid participants in party colours. 


    Motorcycle taxi drivers and housewives advertised their willingness to participate in exchange for the equivalent of $6, lunch and a new party T-shirt.


    Candidates offered platitudes not platforms, and a cynical electorate sulked that their votes for reform five years ago had been ignored.


    A carnival atmosphere has
    marked the campaign

    Yet, early results suggest that not only will projections of a 90% turnout be reached, but also an interesting reworking of the political landscape is taking place in 600,000 polling stations in the world’s third most populous democracy.


    A carnival-like atmosphere pervaded the backstreets of Tanah Abang, a poor, melting-pot neighbourhood anchored by Asia’s largest textile market. 


    Streets normally clogged with vehicles became impromptu playgrounds for children on rattletrap bicycles and parents who pretended to ignore their appeals for cherry-flavoured popsicles.


    "I made up my mind after talking with my friends this morning," said Antonius Utomo, a 37-year-old tax consultant from South Sumatra.


    "I know there is very little chance my vote will change the way the candidates behave because they are all corrupt. But with help we will have a good democracy by the time my daughter is old enough to vote. I also hope it will be simpler for her."


    It is an oft-repeated complaint at polling stations across the sprawling capital. 


    Voters confounded


    Some voters were clearly confounded by the daunting stack of up to four ballot sheets, each the size of an unfolded broadsheet newspaper, covered with the names, photographs and party affiliation of each of the hundreds of candidates from two dozen parties.


    "I have no idea what I’m supposed to do," says housewife Li Pao Liem.


    She is pacing nervously beside a rotting pile of garbage near a polling station in a shanty neighbourhood in East Jakarta that disappears beneath the polluted waters of the Ciliwung River every February. 


    "There was no information before today. No socialisation of the process and anyone can see it is very complicated."


    Golkar's leader Akbar Tanjung is
    expected to do well

    In Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta, Suriya Wintana summed up the frustrations of many.


    "I got into the booth and looked at the ballots and just started punching holes in the paper," he said. "We’re simple people, why do they have to make it so hard."


    With so many undecided voters grappling with a complicated ballot, it is difficult to predict  what the new legislature will look like.


    Organisers say it will take up to 30 days before all the results are in. 


    But informal polling conducted at sites around the city, and the initial flow of results from around Indonesia painted a grim picture for President Megawati Sukarnoputri and her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), and surprising gains by several rivals.


    Previous results


    PDI-P took more than a third of the popular vote in the last elections in 1999, the highest of any of the 48 parties on the ballot, largely on the basis of her personal popularity, and disgust with Golkar, the rubber-stamp party of 32-year strongman Suharto. 


    Cashing in on its vast network of life-long cadres, Golkar picked up 22.5% of the vote.


    What a difference five years makes. 


    Reputable pollsters have said that PDI-P was in trouble for several weeks, polling as low as 12%, compared to Golkar’s roughly 20%. 


    Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is
    the favourite for president

    And Megawati’s personal popularity has similarly slumped; she now trails her former chief security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as the top presidential candidate.


    His tiny Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) is polling well in many regions of the country.


    In what can only be described as a highly symbolic slap in the face, returns from polling station 001, where the president cast her ballot on Monday morning, showed PDI-P running a distant third behind PDI and a nominal Christian party.


    Despite her near mythical credentials as a reformer, the daughter of the founding president, Sukarno has proven herself an ineffective and distant ruler. 


    Like Abdurrahman Wahid, the Sufi cleric whom she served as vice-president from 1999 until his impeachment in 2001, Megawati has squandered a lot of goodwill, both domestically and abroad.


    Despite some modest strides in repairing the tattered economy, her coalition government has largely failed to tackle issues near and dear to people’s hearts, in particular the lack of jobs and the woeful state of the education and health systems in Indonesia. 


    Established ties


    Her well established ties to an oppressive military and the failure of the attorney general’s office to prosecute most of the nation’s worst corporate debtors has alienated her from the young activist set credited with forcing Suharto from power in 1998.

    "But what has she done? All the talk, talk, talk about Reformasi and I still don’t have a job"

    Deny Purnawan,
    ex-Megawati supporter

    "I was one of the people who organised the big rallies for Mega [as she is known colloquially] in 1999. I painted my face and wore her colours, red and black," said 26-year-old Deny Purnawan, a diehard "Slanker", the nickname for followers of a popular Indonesian hardcore band.


    "But what has she done? All the talk, talk, talk about Reformasi and I still don’t have a job. We knew it was going to take time to change this country but it is obvious that she has sold us to the same corruptors we fought against."


    No to corruption


    Another intriguing ingredient in Indonesia’s complicated political pie is the apparent gains being made by the Prosperous Justice party, headed by Saudi-educated Hidayat Nurwahid. 


    Running on an anti-corruption ticket, Nurwahid and his band of intellectual urban Islamists have carved out a soft spot in the public consciousness.


    "We’ve seen that the mainstream political parties are unable to beat corruption, so even though I am worried that they could become very strict, with God’s help they’ll beat corruption here in Indonesia," said Firdaus Nursalim, a father of five who works for a local government agency. 


    "Maybe they can apply moral pressure. However, I would still like to see SBY (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) as president. I think he is a true reformer."


    Not everyone is taking such bold decisions though. In some parts of the country, ghosts still run the show.


    A heavily made-up dowager arrives at a high school polling station in the Toney Menteng district of Jakarta in the latest, midnight blue Mercedes-Benz.


    "I will vote for Mega because we prospered under her father," she says, as several men in orange vests scurry to process her voting credentials. "He was a good man."

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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