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Archive for Tuesday, June 8, 1999

INDONESIANS MARK HISTORIC BALLOTS PEACEFULLY

June 8, 1999

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Monday's elections helped move the country from the authoritarian rule that began crumbling when pro-democracy student groups forced President Suharto to resign last year.

Randegansari, Indonesia -- Miarni, 77, and nearly blind, shuffled slowly into the voting booth with the aid of her husband and several members of their village.

Sensing a possible human interest story, a reporter for the Jawa Pos newpaper, the second largest in this country, moved into the roped-off polling area to snap pictures as she was helped from the booth. Meanwhile, at least 50 villagers quietly waited their turn Monday to vote in Indonesia's first free election since 1955.

The scene was a stark reminder of the differences between this event and elections of years past. It was another major step away from the authoritarian rule that began crumbling when riots by pro-democracy student groups forced President Suharto to resign in May 1998 after 32 years in power.

And for the first time in decades, Indonesian journalists were covering an election but not following a script written by the strongman.

This time, polling officials allowed reporters and photographers to walk freely into voting areas. They could take photos and talk to voters.

The Jawa Pos reporter talked briefly with the elderly couple after they walked away.

"He said he chose the Bull (political party) in the last elections," the reporter, who speaks English, said, "and he chose it again this year. But what Bulls? Last time there was only one. This time there are six."

In Indonesian elections, voters pick a party instead of an individual candidate. The parties win seats in Parliament. In November, Parliament members will select a new president.

To help the many politically naive and uneducated voters, the parties are represented on ballots and posters by colors and symbols.

Golkar, the party of former President Suharto and incumbent President Habibie, is the "yellow" party. Its symbol of a green tree inside a white hexagon surrounded by a bright yellow square made it easy to identify in past elections.

"Vote yellow," the public servants were told, "or you will lose your jobs."

In past years, only 10 parties, most of them pro-government, had been allowed to participate in elections. Each was easily identified by its symbol and color. This time, there were 48 parties, confusing voters and complicating media coverage.

In the past, one of the few political parties allowed to oppose Suharto's Golkar Party was the Indonesian Democracy Party, or PDI. It was identified as a bull's head on a red flag -- the Bull Party. During the past three years, the party has split with a government-approved PDI and a popular anti-government party headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri, PDI-P. Not only did both parties maintain the color of red and the head of a bull, but four other minor parties have tried to cash in on the popular symbol.

At polling places in the countryside west of Surabaya, voters did not seem deterred by the plethora of parties.

They waited quietly to vote. Then they stayed to watch officials tally the votes. Families sat together, mothers held sleeping children, and old men smoked.

The rural Surabayan streets, usually teeming with bicycles, motorcycles, cars, trucks, chickens and small children, were quiet. Most of the residents were in their local polling spots, waiting for the results.

They have high expectations.

"What do you think about our elections?" one man asked in English. "Do you think we will now come out of this economic crisis?"

Many of the villagers were quietly euphoric, like caged birds not yet ready to flex their wings after discovering the cage door open.

They talked about the future.

"What do you think is more important?" asked one man. "Economic reform or political reform?"

-- John R. Mohn is a Lawrence resident in Indonesia as a special consultant to the Jawa Pos Newspaper Network.

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