The process of selecting a president by the People’s Consultative Assembly in Indonesia lasting 11 days beginning on March 1, had already been decided last May. The 1,000-member assembly is a rubber-stamp body which simply confirms what the ruling Golkar Party wants.
General Suharto, 76 and in poor health (he will turn 77 on June 8), insists on running for a seventh term. The people do not elect the president directly; the People’s Assembly nominates and selects him. Its 1,000 members are made up of two groups: 500 members of the House of Representatives (DPR) and the remaining 500 appointed to the assembly by Suharto.
The ruling party thus starts with half the votes in its pocket. Even the 500 members of the DPR are not all elected. Seventyfive are appointed by Suharto from the armed forces in addition to those military officers who might get elected directly. Suharto was anxious to get an even larger number of seats in the House of Representatives. He demanded - and got - 74 percent of the vote. Many observers contested the regime’s claim, given strong vocal opposition witnessed in cities throughout the country.
In the run-up to the presidential selection, there were strikes and protests in most Indonesian cities, exacerbated by a downturn in the economy which has hit much of Southeast Asia since last July. The military has been called out and warnings issued that it will deal with ‘trouble-makers’ harshly. Already, a number of protesters have been shot and killed.
At the conclusion of one military exercise in Jakarta on February 8, general Faysal Tanjung, commander of the armed forces, told his troops to crush all dissent ruthlessly. That did not spare him his job. Suharto had him replaced less than a week later by general Wiranto. This is how the ailing president has managed to keep his grip on power despite the military’s pervasive involvement in every facet of life.
The military has been given a constitutional role in running the country. The 450,000-strong armed forces face no specific external military threat. Their job is to suppress internal dissent, be it in Aceh-Sumatra, Sulawesi or in East Timor. Protests have even spread to Java, the island from where the ruling elite have emerged.
Officially, their role is termed dwifungsi (dual function). The armed forces, however, are everywhere: in parliament, business, the bureaucracy, governorships of provinces and all other areas in-between. Like Big Brother, they monitor political parties, manipulate the leadership of opposition parties, and keep religious groups on the straight and narrow path of strict rituals, preventing them from venturing into the political arena except, of course, to support the president or the ruling party. Even opposition political parties are at the mercy of the armed forces.
Until last summer, the regime could get away with its strong-arm tactics by claiming to promote economic well-being at the expense of sacrificing some political rights. Since the eruption of the currency crisis in which the Indonesian rupiah has lost nearly 80 percent of its value against the US dollar, the regime’s position has been shaken. The economy has nosedived and prices of essential commodities have skyrocketed. People are no longer taking the regime’s line about sacrifices lying down, especially when stories of the first family’s corruption are widely circulated.
The US$40 billion rescue package announced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is on the verge of being withdrawn unless Suharto agrees to some unpleasant medicine. The sacking on February 17 of Sudradjad Djiwandono, governor of the Indonesian Central Bank, who wanted to abide by IMF terms, indicates that Suharto plans to continue with his reckless policies. While IMF prescriptions are not the answer to Indonesia’s economic plight, crony capitalism is no solution either. One theory is that the rupiah is being propped up artificially in order to facilitate the first family’s conversion of their stolen wealth for transfer abroad.
His close aides privately concede that Suharto remains depressed for prolonged periods because of the death of his Catholic wife Tien in 1996 and due to his own ill-health. Last December, Suharto cancelled a trip to Kuala Lumpur for the ASEAN summit because he was unwell. Tien was a strong-willed woman who had immense influence and control over Suharto. Without her presence, he feels adrift. This has enabled his children to indulge in intrigue to manoeuvre themselves into advantageous positions.
There is hardly a business venture in which the Suharto off-springs do not have a finger. His youngest son Hutomo Mandala Putra owns PT Timor Putra Nasional, the company that is to produce Indonesia’s own car in association with Kia Motors Corp of South Korea. Other children own interests in shipping, airlines and in logging.
Suharto received a boost on February 18 when the powerful armed forces (ABRI) agreed to support his choice as successor, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, minister for research and technology. The ailing president had hinted in January that Habibie was his choice but the man, like the Suharto children, is also mired in corruption.
ABRI’s role is crucial. Despite the civilian facade, Indonesia is a military dictatorship. Officially, the country is ruled since March 1983 by Pancasila, an ideology that means five principles. These are: belief in some undefined God, democracy, nationalism, social justice and humanitarianism.
Islam, however, is outlawed in Indonesia where more than 95 percent of its 200 million people are Muslims. There is neither democracy, nationalism nor social justice; only the overbearing presence of the military in all spheres of life, and crony capitalism. All dissent is brutally suppressed. The only voices allowed to be raised are those in praise of the president and his pagan ideology.
These are supposed to be the ‘Asian values’ which will lead the people, eventually, to nirvana! After 33 years of Suharto rule, the masses no longer seem willing to go down this route.
Muslimedia: March 1-15, 1998