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Monday, 7 June, 1999, 15:22 GMT 16:22 UK
A carnival of democracy
Multiparty, multicolour campaigning
By Nicholas Nugent

With a few exceptions, this campaign has been mainly peaceful and good natured - though colourful and noisy. The atmosphere is being described as a 'carnival of democracy'.

Indonesia Flashpoints
In Jakarta and other large cities the campaigns have been marked by motorcades of cars and motorbikes with young people waving colourful party banners, bringing ordinary traffic to a standstill for hours on end. The campaign has been in full swing throughout Indonesia's 6000 inhabited islands.

From the northern tip to Sumatra to the jungles of Irianjaya, party activists have been encouraging the people to play their part in what is being seen as a crucial stage in Indonesia's process of political reform.

Not since 1955 have Indonesians had such a free vote. Throughout the 32 year rule of former president Suharto, which was brought to an end by pro-democracy riots in May 1998, the political process was tightly controlled.

Suharto allowed only three political parties. Victory at elections by the official Golkar party was never in any doubt.

And what a choice ...

This time a staggering 48 political parties are competing for seats in the national parliament, with simultaneous voting for two levels of regional government.

The campaign has been dominated by 4 front-runners who feel that this time they have a realistic chance of winning a share of power from the army-backed Golkar.

Party campaigns have been lively and noisy but short on policies. The main distinction has been between those favouring the status quo - essentially that means Golkar - and those favouring 'reformasi' or reform.

Supporters of the National awakening party
Parties have promoted themselves under colourful banners and party symbols: a bull against a red backcloth for the Democratic Party of Struggle, led by late president Sukarno's daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri; a map of Indonesia against a globe on green for the National Awakening Party, the 'holy kabah', sacred symbol for Muslims, for the United Development Party, also on green; whilst the National Mandate Party symbol shows the sun's rays in blue on white.

Golkar has chose the banyan tree as its symbol on its traditional yellow banner.

At times the power struggle seems like a campaign by the reform minded parties to 'block' Golkar. A banner I saw in Bali read: 'You are entering an area free of the yellow disease. Keep it that way'.

Golkar is accused of being linked with 'Corruption, Collusion and Nepotism' - KKN in its Indonesian acronym - and of being the 'No Action Talk Only,' or Nato party!

Nationwide campaign

I found the rallies of the main parties as intense in the distant provinces as in the more populous provinces of Java.

On the island of Sulawesi, home of interim President Habibie, Golkar campaigners have been out in force.

The islanders feel that more notice is taken of their views in Jakarta since Habibie took over following Suharto's forced resignation. Both Suharto and his predecessor, Sukarno, came from Java.

Javanese have traditionally dominated both the political and military establishments.

Ruling party supporters
Yet support for Golkar on Indonesia's outer islands cannot be taken for granted. Voters in the province of West Kalimantan (Borneo) are determined to punish Golkar for what they see as the destruction of the province's orange growing industry under Suharto.

Other provinces, like Aceh, resent the way the Suharto government appropriated oil and gas revenues to Jakarta. Golkar still has the best organised party structure and is especially strong in the countryside, where most Indonesians live, so it may yet achieve a respectable share of the vote.

Presidential choice comes later

Meanwhile the so-called 'pro-reformasi' parties make their individual claims for power by promoting their leaders as candidates for president. The new president will not be chosen until November, and then not directly by the people.

But the 7th June popular vote will select most members of the electoral college which will choose the new president, so the two processes are closely interrelated.

Voting patterns uncertain

Most Indonesians I spoke to seemed uncertain about their voting choices. If they have made up their minds how to vote it is for vague reasons. 'I shall vote for Megawati because I respected her father, the founder of our nation' is a typical comment.

Others say they do not care who wins as long as they make it easier to buy rice, reflecting how prices of basic foods have risen steeply since the Asian economic crisis hit Indonesia 18 months ago. The price of basic foods is the single biggest concern of ordinary Indonesians, much closer to their hearts than any strong desire to reform the political process.

The real test for the country's newly won democracy will be whether the polling will lead to a peaceful transfer of power.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Audio
The BBC's Jonathan Head: The Indonesian public has turned against Golkar
Video
Matt Frei watches history in the making in Indonesia
Audio
The BBC's Jonathan Head: Violence was not enough to mar a remarkably good-natured campaign
See also:

19 May 99 | Asia-Pacific
04 Jun 99 | Asia-Pacific
02 Jun 99 | SPECIAL REPORT
03 Jun 99 | Asia-Pacific
04 Jun 99 | Asia-Pacific
01 Jun 99 | Profiles
04 Jun 99 | SPECIAL REPORT
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