Nov 15, 2018 Last Updated 6:23 AM, Nov 5, 2018

Off to the polls

Published: Sep 22, 2007

Indonesians will vote in June. Can they escape from the dead hand of past elections?

Jim Schiller

Indonesian newspapers say 1999 is the year that will decide Indonesia’s future, but that the coming elections have the potential for national disaster. As I write, the remnant national assembly (DPR) has just completed negotiating rules for the June elections (see box). A legislature stacked with people from the Suharto regime, now called the Corruption, Collusion and Nepotism Order, had the task of reforming the system which put them in office. Initial comments on the reforms have been mixed. Will the laws be widely accepted? If they are, will the elections implemented under them be seen as fair enough to give the elected government a chance to govern?

To consider those questions we need to consider what elections are supposed to do, and then what they have been expected to do in Indonesia.

Democratic theory sees elections as opportunities for the people to have their say. It imagines equal, independent and enlightened citizens. Votes are conceived as calculated decisions about who should govern, based on candidates’ policies and records. Government is made accountable to citizens who are empowered at the ballot box.

Even in the most homogenous and prosperous democracies, these assumptions are not fully realised. Election campaigns are not necessarily informative. Many voters do not make calculated decisions about their votes. Voters may be equal in the voting station, but they are far from equal in their wealth or capacity to influence the results. Many citizens of liberal democracies do not feel empowered by election process.

More recently, the authors of The politics of elections in Southeast Asia have focused on more mundane uses of elections. Elections, they say, may help Third World governments to appear democratic and therefore qualify for aid, investment and preferential trade from fellow ‘democracies’. Elections may also help to pacify the population. If people believe the election system is ‘fair’ they may be willing to wait for their turn to win. If citizens believe that they have had a voice and that the winning parties have received a mandate from the people they may be more willing to obey authority and to refrain from street politics.


The Suharto government never intended to empower people. It wanted elections that pacified the population and justified foreign aid. Its elections, called ‘festivals of democracy’ aimed to generate enthusiastic participation without risking power. The two political parties were meant to be supporting cast in the victory of the government party. To create the appearance of choice at a ritual without choice, the Suharto government put in place one of the most comprehensively engineered electoral processes in the world.

It began by reducing the stakes. The presidency was not filled through popular elections. Instead, the president was ‘elected’ by a mainly appointed super-parliament (MPR). The MPR consisted of 500 representatives from the national assembly (DPR), of whom 75 were military appointed by the president, plus an additional 500 presidential appointees. The voters’ choice was limited to 42.5% of the body that elects the president, and 85% of the seats in a rubber-stamp national assembly.

Since 1977 only three parties have been permitted to contest elections. They are the state party, Golkar, which had unparalleled access to private donations, and to the resources of the state, and two government-manipulated, cash-strapped, badly divided political parties, PDI (the Indonesian Democratic Party) and PPP (the United Development Party).

The government allowed only a brief campaign period. Parties found it difficult to organise outside the campaign period. Government officials, also Golkar cadre, were able to influence voters before the campaign, or during the ‘quiet week’ before the poll. The government restricted popular campaign symbols, screened prospective candidates, and banned critical campaigners. It intervened frequently to remove outspoken politicians. It also detained or threatened those who proposed an election boycott.

The most important reason for the government’s success at achieving a high turnout and Golkar victory was its control of an administrative structure which stretched from Jakarta down to the village. Local officials controlled development funds that could be used to reward the loyal. They also issue documents that are crucial in the everyday life of most Indonesians. Anyone who wants to send their children to school, sell land, or open a business must obtain the signatures of their local and village officials. This control over sanctions and rewards makes state officials powerful patrons everywhere in Indonesia, but especially in poor, isolated areas outside Java. Patronage was reinforced through intimidation by local officials, military and sometimes gangs.

Local state and village officials were required to join the government party and were given quotas for Golkar membership and votes. Retired army officers and government officials managed the Golkar campaign. Officials and family members were candidates for local assemblies. These officials also headed the committees that policed the campaign, voting and vote-counting.

The vote counting and tallying process provided little opportunity for independent scrutiny. The election ritual closed with a coerced declaration of acceptance of the results, signed by regional and national party leaders.


State Secretary Moerdiono said that ‘the [1997] election should take place quietly, full of anticipation and full of enthusiasm. ‘ The government’s aim was to carry out elections that generated enough public participation and enthusiasm to give it some domestic legitimacy and international credibility without demonstrating the regime’s need to resort to repression or fraud.

It did not succeed. The election ended up looking more like a sham than a festival of democracy. In 1997 there was more resistance to the government’s effort, more violence by and against government supporters, more negative images of the election, and more visible opposition to the election.

More than one hundred were killed in one incident in Banjarmasin. A larger number were killed in daily campaign violence scattered across the archipelago. In Madura, crowds, disgusted with alleged vote fraud, burned down voting stations and government buildings. Elsewhere in East Java unrest continued for weeks after the election.

The resistance and violence had several sources. One source was the anger and alienation that resulted from the removal of Megawati Sukarnoputri as leader of the PDI, and the government-supported, violent attack on her supporters at PDI headquarters in 1996. Thousands of her supporters saw the election as fraudulent and were ready to challenge Golkar and ‘official’ PDI campaign efforts. Thousands more joined with the Islamic party PPP and helped radicalise its campaign.

Another source was the intensity of the government election effort. In 1992 the government vote had declined 5%. In 1997 the government wanted to more than recoup its 5% vote decline in 1992. Bureaucrats were mobilised to go all out for a victory. Weekly estimates of the Golkar vote using vote count declarations, rewards for delivering 95% or 100% Golkar victories, incentive programs to win the support of Muslim leaders, and huge mass rallies in PPP strongholds were all part of that effort.

Money politics was extensive. It included incentive payments to officials, provision of cattle to villages voting 100% Golkar, and cash payments to voters. Alleged government intimidation of party supporters was widely reported. This included sending a dog’s head to a Solo PPP leader, the beating of the PPP chairman in Wonosobo, and attacks on PPP supporters returning from a rally in Jepara. The government’s overbearing effort, which included efforts to restrict mass rallies, provoked thousands of angered citizens to ignore restrictions and, sometimes, to engage in violence.

Interestingly, negative news of the intimidation, violence, vote fraud, and vote buying was widely reported. The widespread availability of internet election stories may have made journalists more daring. The monitoring of the election and related human rights abuses by the national human rights commission (Komnasham) and the new independent election monitoring committee (Kipp) allowed the Indonesian press to report anger and frustration.


The New Order set out to use an election to engineer consent. Instead it got violence and anger. So what is the legacy of 1997 and the Suharto election system? Four features stand out: a widespread suspicion of elections, a high level of campaign intimidation and violence, a suspect civil service in charge of the election, and the use of money politics.

In 1997, vote declarations appeared weeks before election day, vote counts at the village level changed at the next level, and in North Sumatra Golkar transferred votes to the pro-government PDI. The fraud helped to generate a deep mistrust of authority. This increases the likelihood of future election violence, and the risk that losers will claim foul play. In the present economic and social climate, the risks of rejection and violence are high.

The use of intimidation and violence by government supporters and opponents was a major feature of the 1997 campaign. The cost of intimidation, in lives and in the poor image of the election was high. Many party supporters became more militant. Government mobilisation of crowds was matched by the PPP and by Megawati supporters. Instructions restricting public rallies were largely ignored and crowds were frequently provoked to violence. In 1999 it is hard to imagine that crowds of a million or more could remain non-violent.

As the 1997 Jepara Golkar chairman, also the head of local government, stated in a post-election booklet: ‘as we all know the election is designed for a Golkar victory’. To do this the civil service was firmly enlisted in support of the government party through payments, opportunities for promotion and job threats if they did not deliver a Golkar victory. Local officials are now used to being part of a political machine. They will go into 1999 dispirited, with less patronage, and with a more critical society than ever before. Still, if the government party can deliver some local patronage that could sway the election outcome, especially in isolated places like Southeast Sulawesi where Golkar obtained 98% of the vote in 1997. Depending on how the election laws and civil service regulations are interpreted, bureaucrats might ally themselves with Golkar or other political parties. Officials taking sides could have a devastating impact.

Money politics was important in 1997, and is likely to be more important in the current depression. Money to buy the support of local patrons or to pay people for their vote has been a major feature of ‘democratic’ elections in Thailand and the Philippines. In 1999 it is unclear which Indonesian parties will have money to spend, or how much patron and vote buying there will be. It is certain that ‘money politics’ will be an issue in determining the election’s credibility.

Against these legacies of Suharto, all of which make it more difficult to hold a successful election, is the inventiveness and courage of Indonesia’s reformers and citizens. Reforms like the decision by Central Java university heads to turn the obligatory university student fieldwork into an extensive election monitoring program will make it harder for anyone trying to continue the practices of the Suharto period. The election laws and the ‘reform’ mood within society mean that this election will be closely scrutinised. Trying to engineer the results would be disastrous.

Jim Schiller lectures in the Department of Asian Studies and Languages at Flinders University in Adelaide. He has written on the 1997 elections for the University of Victoria, Canada, Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives series.

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