May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

What price victory? The 1997 elections

Published: Sep 30, 2007

General elections during the 30 years of President Suharto's New Order government were never times to make important decisions about the nation's future. After all, Golkar victories are never in doubt. Instead, they often seem to be little more than curious political rituals designed to mask, albeit poorly, the military and bureaucratic foundations of the regime's power.

However, elections always did serve important legitimating functions. Not that the public viewed the repeated, crushing Golkar victories as genuine popular endorsements of the government. Many clearly did not view them in this way, but in any case, this was a secondary matter. Rather, elections functioned as visible demonstrations of the government's ability to assert its will over the population.

The mobilisation of overwhelming financial and administrative resources, the humiliation wreaked on the parties, even the openness of the pressure brought to bear on voters: all seemed designed to parade the New Order's invincibility. The orderly and ritualistic character of campaigning communicated the essential message that even when the population was handed an opportunity to challenge, the government could remain aloof, impervious, triumphant.

Shifting public mood

However, long before this year's May poll, it was clear it would be difficult to recreate once again the ritualistic air of previous elections. In the five years since the last poll, the government has faced unprecedented opposition and spreading public discontent. Especially since the crude ouster of Megawati Sukarnoputri as leader of the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia (PDI) in June 1996, there has been an almost palpable shift in the public mood, in part demonstrated by a series of bloody riots in the last six months.

The government responded to challenges with a rigidity which only compounded its problems. In stark contrast to the optimistic atmosphere of the early 1990s, when there was much talk of 'openness' and 'democratisation', the twelve months leading up to the May elections saw a concerted crackdown on civilian dissent. As well as the moves against Megawati, a wide range of extra-parliamentary opposition groups were repressed.

The most extreme case was the targeting of the young radicals of the People's Democratic Party (PRD), whose leader Budiman Sudjatmiko was given a thirteen year prison sentence on April 28. At the same time, government forces prepared for the elections with such crude techniques that they almost seemed designed to inflame popular resentment. Most notable among them was the program of 'yellowisation' (kuningisasi) in which trees, walls, bus stops, even private houses in many parts of the nation were painted Golkar yellow.


Another important function played by previous New Order elections was to ensure that an array of mass-based political forces maintained a stake, no matter how tenuous, in the New Order project. By holding out the promise of parliamentary representation for both Islamic and nationalist political groups - provided they did not criticise too explicitly - the government successfully ensnared otherwise unpredictable groups within a system which in fact offered them little room to move.

The government's rigidity in dealing with public discontent over the last year - in particular its handling of Megawati - meant that the elections were not going to have this effect this time around. Instead of coopting potential opposition, they simply dramatised the exclusion of a significant part of the population - Megawati's following - from the formal system.

Much interest in the months leading to the election focussed on what position Megawati would take. She and her supporters at first maintained the fiction that their PDI, rather than the rump now run by government appointee Soerjadi, was still part of the formal system. Party branches followed each stage of the election process: submitting lists of candidates, flooding the Election Institute with objections to the candidature of Soerjadi loyalists, and so on. Unheeded at every turn, at the outset of the official campaign Megawati instructed her followers to take no part in activities organised by Soerjadi.


The vast majority of PDI supporters obeyed this instruction to the letter. In stark contrast to the massive rallies of 1992, PDI campaign activities were virtually deserted. Even state television news crews had difficulty finding camera angles to disguise the thinness of the crowds. Many campaign functions degenerated into farce as Megawati supporters made their views known.

At the beginning of the first PDI rally in Surabaya, for example, one of those dancing to dangdut music on the stage seized the microphone and shouted Hidup Megawati (Long live Megawati!), and most of the 4,000 in attendance joined in. At a similar rally in Kediri, East Java, venomous snakes were thrown onto the platform where Soerjadi was speaking.

In many towns, Soerjadi-PDI candidates took to campaigning from the backs of trucks, in case speedy exit was called for. In some places campaign functions were held in private houses. Elsewhere they were cancelled altogether.

No boycott

But Megawati and her leadership, maintaining their legalist approach, did not promote an active boycott campaign. In her final statement a week before the poll, Megawati said she would not use her vote, but instructed her supporters to follow their own consciences. Although the message was clear enough, she stopped short of explicitly encouraging others to boycott, an illegal act.

Certainly this time around sentiment for a boycott was far greater than in previous years. Numerous opinion polls conducted by university students or commissioned by the press indicated this. Leaders of Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as several important Islamic organisations (although not the largest) more or less endorsed a boycott.

Pro-boycott demonstrations were organised by students in many towns. Often Megawati's PDI supporters also openly proclaimed their intention not to vote. Soerjadi's PDI suffered the greatest loss as a result. Its share of the vote declined from 15% in 1992 to approximately 3%, by far its lowest ever.

However, given Megawati's reluctance to promote it, the boycott campaign failed to generate the momentum activists had hoped for. Instead, it was the campaign of the Muslim-based PPP (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, United Development Party) which most visibly tapped public frustration.

PPP campaign

The PPP is run by a leadership of the 'old' New Order variety. Its chairperson, Ismail Hasan Metareum, achieved government 'blessing' for his appointment. He has always complied with government wishes on important matters. In the last elections the PPP was the first party (beating even Golkar) to nominate Suharto as its presidential candidate.

This time around, the PPP campaign was more spirited. A central theme was the condemnation of 'nepotism' and 'corruption'. But this was only in general terms. Party spokespeople avoided sensitive issues like the presidential succession.

Nevertheless, PPP campaigns attracted massive crowds. On the days allotted the PPP in Jakarta, hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets wearing the party's distinctive green and waving flags bearing its star symbol (bintang).

In the absence of a clear directive from Megawati, PPP rallies also drew many disenfranchised PDI supporters. Many carried her picture, or waved banners mixing green with the PDI's red. The 'Mega-Bintang' phenomenon, as it became known, was such a cause for concern that the government declared it illegal.


The most striking characteristic of the campaign was the violence which accompanied it. Well over 300 people were killed. Many died in vehicle accidents during election rallies, but there were some particularly violent incidents. By far the worst was a huge riot in Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan, on May 23. Officials said some 123 'looters' perished in a shopping centre fire. Other observers feared a much higher toll, including deaths by shooting at the hands of soldiers.

In Jakarta too, there was virtually uncontrollable rioting for the final week of the campaign. Several poor kampungs became the sites of a virtual intifada as local youths battled it out with security forces. Tear gas was used, shots were fired and at least one young PPP supporter was shot dead.

Highlighting the government's inability to maintain 'politics as normal', the final day of election campaigning was cancelled in the capital. On voting day, some 26,000 troops patrolled the city.

Clashes were often sparked by the actions of Golkar-affiliated toughs - petty criminals organised through groups like Pemuda Pancasila, or the teenage children of military officers and officials. Time and again, beatings of PPP supporters - while security forces stood idly by - led to stone-throwing and looting.

At other times, violence was sparked by perceived slights to Islam. The Banjarmasin riot was triggered when Golkar security guards tried to force their motorcycles through crowds attending Friday prayer.


Campaign violence was the more remarkable because it happened despite months of preparation by security forces. In the weeks leading to the campaign, all the most senior military officers warned that no disruptions would be tolerated. Repeated parades of military might in the major cities saw black garbed commandoes dropping from helicopters for the benefit of the press.

The outbreaks occurred without formal opposition leadership. Core PPP leaders disavowed all violence, agreed to cancel rallies when disorder threatened, and even attempted to disassociate themselves from the Mega-Bintang phenomenon.

This is the irony of Indonesia today. The regime - like many run by ageing strongmen - is determined to prevent the development of institutionalised opposition, no matter how moderate (and Megawati is very moderate indeed). This policy has had the unintended consequence of inflaming mass sentiment while simultaneously depriving the disaffected poor of moderate leadership with an institutional stake in the system.

The result is a restive urban population, liable to outbursts of violence against the security forces, against symbols of wealth and privilege, and against ethnic Chinese.

Golkar victory

Yet in many places the campaign did proceed with the familiar ritual. Golkar rallies attracted large crowds, mobilised by the traditional means of obligatory attendance for civil servants and financial inducement for others.

Golkar scored an important victory with the apparent change of heart on the part of Abdurrahman Wahid, the leader of the massive Islamic organisation, NU. During a series of meetings with NU religious leaders and congregations, he effectively endorsed support for Golkar. Most remarkably, he threw his weight behind the vice-presidential candidacy of Mbak Tutut, the president's eldest daughter.

An overwhelming Golkar victory was never in doubt. Throughout the country, the military and the bureaucracy are synonymous with Golkar. They possess a virtual monopoly on local political power.

Despite the efforts of the electoral watchdog KIPP, the vast majority of election booths around the country were untouched by independent scrutiny. Of the approximately 300,000, KIPP had a presence at 600. In such circumstances, it is unsurprising that Golkar achieved another landslide. As Inside Indonesia goes to press, this appears to be about 74%.


But if anything underscores the air of unreality in official politics, it is this result. After a campaign which witnessed repeated and bloody breakdowns of control, under a government obviously growing unpopular, Golkar achieved its highest ever vote. Little wonder that there has been unprecedented public discussion of electoral fraud. Combined with the boycott campaign, the alienation of Megawati's supporters, and the campaign violence, the discussion indicates that this election will in the long run prove to be a very bad one for the government.

The election: what is at stake

Ed Aspinall teaches Indonesian studies at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.


Inside Indonesia 51: Jul-Sep 1997

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