Sep 25, 2020 Last Updated 8:00 AM, Sep 25, 2020

On the mend

Published: Jul 30, 2007

In Jakarta and Yogyakarta, the election brought renewing hope

Laine Berman

From a distance we heard the deafening roar of scooters, shouting voices, the honking of horns and blaring music, all under the pale yellow-grey blanket of exhaust emissions which already hung heavily in Jakarta's morning sky. We approached Jalan Thamrin with apprehension, caused by terrifying memories of previous election campaigns. In 1992 in Yogya I witnessed the naked violence and widespread fear of Indonesian street campaigns: the threatening spectacle of scooters with no mufflers, their 'ninja' drivers and menacing passengers with sticks in hand ready to use on any bystander who failed to raise the appropriate hand signal. This was Jakarta, it was day one of the campaigns, and I was scared.

The first day of campaigning was the only one when all 48 parties were permitted to march. 'Experts' of all kinds predicted riots. But from the moment we reached Jalan Thamrin and began the hike south to the Hotel Indonesia roundabout, all my concerns disappeared. Instead of open intimidation, we had a celebration. Vehicles from one party happily gave way to the next. Buses carried flags from many parties under the banner 'Bis Koalisi'. People helped each other. Whereas in 1992 Chinese bystanders were harassed for 'petrol money', now they too were visibly relieved and joined the throngs on the roadsides. When we finally reached the roundabout, the carnival atmosphere was in full swing with acrobats, clowns, floats, colourful banners, and a great deal of good cheer. Jakartans had beaten the odds, confounded the 'experts', and enjoyed themselves immensely to boot!

In Jakarta and in Yogyakarta the campaign and the election itself went surprisingly well. Very few incidents marred the festivities. On June 7th, in my kampung in central Yogyakarta, men sat in the shade of the fruit trees in my front yard discussing politics. They joked about the old days before reformasi, when nobody bothered to vote yet the kampung tally still showed full participation for Golkar. Now things were different. Men of all ages were enjoying the atmosphere, while women lined up to vote first. 'Women shouldn't have to stand in the heat', the men said as they stepped aside to let the women through. The process was long. It took over an hour from queuing up to casting the three ballots to confirming their legitimacy to staining a finger in ink (meant to prevent double voting). No one complained. Everyone seemed to enjoy the experience and the chance to discuss it all with neighbours.

For weeks prior to this day, TV, radio, and all print media educated the nation on the voting process. Each night speakers from the different parties were introduced through open debates and speeches. Immediately upon Suharto's resignation, the talk show format seemed to have taken over evening TV. Now there were discussions of election topics, reviews of party platforms, training videos, guest speakers, and viewer call-ins. Through TV videos, advertisements, posters, pamphlets, and print media cartoons, the nation was assured that this election was unlike all the previous ones.

Women's voice

People were taught to recognise various ways of cheating, and to reject gender bias by assuring women that their votes were personal and very important. Women make up over half the electorate. Media campaigns incessantly told them that 'for the first time, we do have a voice. Women will determine the nation's future!' TV ads assured women that their vote was secret and should be cast for the party that best supported women's issues. Disappointingly, no one I asked knew of such a party.

Other ad campaigns encouraged voters to follow their own preference and conviction and not just follow husbands, village heads, or religious leaders. Yet others warned of 'politik bayaran' or vote buying. They actually encouraged people to take the money but vote according to their preference. As the day approached and for weeks afterward, the media campaigns shifted. Now, the nation was encouraged to accept the outcome as free and fair, regardless of who won. Scenes showed friends and family fighting over differences of opinion, then pointed out how wasteful such arguments were.

No one doubted the significance of this election. Everyone in my kampung said how important they felt personally. While most agreed that no candidate stood out as a true leader, all felt confident that Indonesia was finally on the mend. After the polls closed, as many people as the hall could fit took part in the counting. Many kept their own tallies. During three days of counting, the crowds in the hall and those hanging around outside never abated. Nor did their enthusiasm and desire to be part of the great occasion. Fathers led me to the window of the hall to point to their sons and daughters and with great pride said: 'That's my child, an election monitor!'

During the long counting process, each ballot paper was read out aloud. Each one was greeted by a flurry of comments: cheers (Megawati's PDI-P), boos (Golkar), laughter (the youthful PRD). Any discrepancy was carefully checked. On the night of June 7 and for the rest of the week, kampung celebrations were visible all over town. Men gathered in roadside party huts ('posko') to shave their heads and/or to cook dog meat stew, both common ways of giving thanks and celebrating a blessing. Their reasons were numerous. 'No, I didn't vote for Mega, but that doesn't matter. What is important is that the election was a success.' 'We are celebrating the new era for Indonesia.' 'We are celebrating because Golkar is finished.' 'We don't care who wins as long as it is clean.' 'Yes, it will take a long time to clean up Suharto's mess, but we have already begun!'

The only people who remained cynical and had no inked finger (alias they didn't vote, saying they were 'Golput') were the older generation of Yogya activists. These were the university students who had helped Muchtar Pakpahan create the labour union SBSI, had helped Megawati rise in the PDI and later to form PDI-P, and had helped Amien Rais form his PAN, among others. Before Suharto's fall they had pitched in to write their platforms, and organised their rallies and protests. Many of them had now graduated (or dropped out) and are working for non-government organisations. They felt they knew the candidates too well. They were too familiar with their flaws to vote for them.

Open minds

All in all, the changes Indonesia has experienced (in some places) since 21 May 1998 are phenomenal. In just over one year a wave of openness has flooded into the media, the streets, the kampungs, the campuses, and people's minds. Rather than blindly follow provocateurs, people are beginning to feel their responsibility in the future shape of the nation. They question the motives of troublemakers.

The group of men I sat with as they waited for the women to vote talked about their roles in preventing corruption and in ensuring the next president really does represent the people. The idealism I witnessed was touching, if not a bit naive. Indonesia has a long way to go before the effects of oppression, social inequality, and institutionalised violence subside. At least in the kampungs of Yogyakarta and Jakarta, the 'little people' are ready to face the changes. Let's hope both the old and the new generation of leaders can do the same.

Laine Berman is a research fellow in the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 60: Oct-Dec 1999

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