In Indonesia, Candidates Run Away From Their Records

DENPASAR, BALI, INDONESIA—Indonesia, the world’s largest predominantly Muslim nation, holds its first ever direct presidential election July 5. That’s an essential step along a road to democracy where Indonesia has already paid heavy tolls.

Six years after crowds shouting “Reformasi!” ended President Suharto’s three decades of iron fists and itchy palms, his New Order cronies still dominate. According to a new World Bank report, more than half of Indonesia’s 220 million people live on less than $2 a day, including an estimated 45 million jobless. The military remains the most powerful national institution, still largely beyond civilian control. Suharto’s fall decentralized and expanded corruption, Indonesia’s leading industry.

No wonder all five presidential tickets pledge change. Still, the candidates hardly represent reform. Far from being outsiders, they include the sitting president and vice president, the top minister in their Cabinet, and the speaker of the upper house of the legislature, plus Suharto’s last army chief of staff, who also served as security minister in the first reform-era Cabinet. After years as part of the problem, they now claim to be the solution.

Newly empowered voters may want to discuss details of this astounding transformation, but campaigns prefer empty promises, identity politics, vote buying, and dangdut songs with a catchy, Bollywood beat. No rally is complete without a song from the candidate; two even sang (separately) on the final of Akademi Fantasi Indonesia, the local equivalent of American Idol. “Political leaders don’t think people are smart enough or rational enough to look at the issues,” says political analyst Andi A. Mallarangeng. Or perhaps politicians realize voters are too smart to risk plain talk on issues. Indonesia’s presidential vote isn’t a so-called Seinfeld election about nothing; it’s an election about what candidates are not.

Indonesia now follows the forms of democracy, including a September presidential runoff if no candidate receives 50 percent in July, but the substance lags. Thanks to reform, presidential candidates now must file asset reports, but no one asks why some hopefuls’ wealth totals several times their government salaries. Under Suharto, such questions led to thugs invading your office and losing your business license. Now, the aggrieved tycoon or general may also sue you in courts where verdicts go to the high bidder.

To further blind voters, parties choose vice presidential candidates for maximum ambiguity: a Muslim cleric with a general; a secularist female with a Muslim cleric; an indicted human rights criminal with a former human rights commissioner.

Like princesses in Javanese fairy tales, incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri let power find her. Suharto declared this reticent daughter of founding President Sukarno a threat to his rule, making her the unlikely focal point for dissent. After advocating reformasi in her campaign, Megawati pulled the plug after she replaced impeached President Abdurrahman Wahid in July 2001. (Megawati joined the Philippines’ Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and George W. Bush as presidential offspring taking office during 2001 without a ballot box mandate.) Even though Suharto gracelessly overthrew her father in a 1965 coup that left at least 500,000 dead, Megawati ignored New Order abuses, embraced the unreformed military, and adopted economic policies that overlook 100 million poor.

That approach can’t even win votes in fairy tales, so Megawati opened her re-election campaign with her first public news conference in nearly three years as president. She promised to create more than 10 million new jobs, boost the education budget by 20 percent, and clean up corruption if elected, steps presumably blocked by the incumbent. Megawati’s campaign also pledged to put Suharto on trial, blaming delays on an inept attorney general that Megawati not only appointed but repeatedly defended against misconduct charges.

Megawati’s presidential blundering led to an outbreak of SARS—not the virus that devastated Asia last year but Sindrom Aku Rindu Suharto (I miss Suharto syndrome). In April, Suharto’s ruling vehicle, Golkar, outpolled Megawati’s Parti Demokrasi Indonesia- Perjuangan (PDI-P: Indonesian Democratic Struggle Party) to become the biggest party in the new legislature. Following the legislative voting, Golkar nominated Suharto’s last military chief of staff, Gen. Wiranto, for president.

Wiranto’s tenure covered Suharto’s bloody last stand in May 1998, when military snipers killed unarmed demonstrators and thousands of unidentified agents provocateurs (mainly men of military age) sparked rioting in Jakarta’s Chinatown, killing thousands. There’s been no command accountability for those incidents, but Wiranto’s record landed him on the U.S. visa watch list, meaning Wiranto’s visa application must be decided by the U.S. State Department, something the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta rather undiplomatically announced. Wiranto also faces potential arrest on an international warrant from a U.N.-backed court for his army’s complicity or worse in hundreds of killings by pro-Indonesian militias in occupied East Timor.

Naturally, Wiranto campaigns as a defender of democracy, with a running mate from the national human rights commission. It’s bound to work better than the truth.

Megawati vs. Wiranto offers a Hobson’s choice between the failure and venality of the past five years and the failure and brutality of the previous 30. Former Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, known as SBY, invites voters to reject both. To some, SBY combines experience as a key minister to reform presidents with military authority to force real change. Or he’s SARS Lite, a Suharto-era general lacking Wiranto’s achievements or baggage, who resigned from Megawati’s Cabinet in a highly choreographed huff before launching his campaign.

That’s a dream team of deniability, fortified through TV ads showing twentysomethings declaring they’re behind SBY because he’s keren—cool. The latest polls indicate SBY enjoys more support than the other four candidates combined.