Opinion: A guide to the 2004 elections
Published January 26th 2004 in The Jakarta Post

Indonesia faces at least two and probably three national elections in 2004, including a presidential vote, but they are unlikely to bring fundamental change. Citizens are increasingly disillusioned with the half-decade of democracy and "money politics" they have experienced since the collapse of Soeharto's authoritarian New Order.

The first election, on April 5, 2004, will fill almost 16,000 seats in legislatures at the national, provincial and district levels. The second, on July 5, 2004, will be its first direct presidential vote ever. If, as is almost certain, no candidate meets the criteria for election in the first round, a run-off between the top two vote-getters will take place on Sept. 20. The process needs to be completed before President Megawati Soekarnoputri's term expires on Oct. 20.

Public disillusionment with the performance of democratic government since the first post-authoritarian election in 1999 has been spreading rapidly. The elected government is widely seen as having failed to cope with the massive challenges that the nation is facing. Elected politicians at all levels are commonly perceived as venal and corrupt.

And the ordinary people who constitute the poor majority complain that democracy has not brought any improvement in their economic welfare. Indeed, a credible public opinion poll indicated that 58 percent of respondents believe that conditions were better under Soeharto's New Order.

Political reformers have called for a thorough overhaul of the constitution and the electoral system to ensure that leaders are responsive and accountable to the voters. The most important reform has been the adoption of direct presidential elections in place of the indirect system that was mired in the backroom dealing of political parties and "money politics".

Reform of elections to the legislatures has been more limited. Apart from the removal of appointed military and police representatives, those bodies will be elected through proportional representation, much the same way as before.

The main difference is that the old province-based constituencies will be reduced in size in the large provinces so that representatives, theoretically at least, will be closer to their constituents. This limited reform, however, may entrench rather than overcome the political fragmentation that has bedeviled post-authoritarian democracy.

Public opinion surveys indicate that the two leading parties in 1999 -- President Megawati's PDI-P and Golkar, the party of the Soeharto government -- are again likely to occupy the top positions. However, the polls suggest that many who voted for the underdog PDI-P in 1999 have been alienated by its behavior and are returning to Golkar.

Among potential presidential candidates, Megawati retains the most support, but the gap is narrowing. Golkar, however, has been unable to capitalize on its growing support because of inability to determine its presidential candidate. The party's chairman, Akbar Tanjung, is appealing against a three-year prison sentence for corruption. Meanwhile seven potential candidates (including Akbar) remain in the race for the party's nomination, which will be determined only in April 2004.

Six months ahead of the first round of the presidential election, four possible scenarios suggest themselves.

If the PDI-P clearly wins most votes, it is likely that Golkar will be satisfied with the vice-presidency and will join a coalition supporting the re-election of President Megawati.

If Golkar wins more votes than -- or roughly the same number as -- PDI-P, it is likely to nominate its own presidential candidate. Following Golkar's "pre-convention" in October 2003, retired Gen. Wiranto has emerged as a leading candidate.

The second possibility, however, could lead to a nightmare for Golkar. If it nominates its own candidate, Megawati could respond by offering her party's vice-presidential nomination to a Golkar candidate, perhaps Akbar Tanjung or Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Jusuf Kalla. This could not only split Golkar's votes, but lead to a major division within the party itself.

The PDI-P's nightmare scenario, on the other hand, follows from the first scenario above. A Megawati-Golkar team would almost certainly come out far ahead of its nearest rival in the first round of the presidential election although without sufficient support to win outright in that round.

The candidate running second might take only 10 to 15 percent of the votes but could then launch an "Anyone-But-Mega" campaign in the second round. Such a campaign could mobilize Muslim votes against the secular-nationalist Megawati. The most dangerous potential run-off rival for Megawati would be the current chairman of the People's Consultative Assembly, Amien Rais, although his prospects of reaching the second round seem bleak.

Another dangerous rival would be Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs General (Ret.) Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, if his tiny Democrat Party is able to secure the backing of one of the larger parties. In December 2003 another possible challenger emerged, former President Soeharto's eldest daughter, Siti Hardijanti Rukmana, but her chances look slim at this stage.

Whatever the result of the presidential election, the next government will be based on a coalition of rival parties. In the absence of a strong leader capable of imposing cohesion on such a government, its performance will be hamstrung by many of the problems that hampered the previous three.