Indonesia Elections Have Broad National Implications

Indonesia Elections Have Broad National Implications

World Politics Review
Luke Hunt
Parliamentary elections in Indonesia, as elsewhere, are usually an ordinary affair as local politicians jockey for position among voters at the grassroots level. Normally voting revolves around homespun issues: a new school library, the local waters works or paved roads.
But in the lead-up to legislative elections in Indonesia, campaigning has taken on much broader implications, providing a battleground for separatist forces in the troubled province of Papua, a testing ground for the fragile peace in Aceh and a vibrant backdrop for the presidential poll in July.
Keith Loveard, a Jakarta-based security consultant with Concord Security said electoral-related violence in both Papua and Aceh is on the increase, and in Papua this has been accompanied by a general rise in separatist sentiment. Large demonstrations in the regional capital of Jayapura have called for boycotting the polls. Meanwhile the number of attacks by the Free Papua Organization (OPM) has risen, particularly in Puncak Jaya, Loveard said, amid an increase of non-Papuan Indonesian migrants into the area.
A massive $4.3 billion rice paddy development by the bin Laden family in the far-flung eastern province has further fueled anti-migrant sentiment. Most indigenous Papuans are Christian, and fear that an Islamization process is being directed from Jakarta to marginalize them as second class citizens. This has stoked anti-government sentiment and encouraged calls for a boycott of the poll.
Additionally, a World Bank unit has reported 16 people were killed and another 47 injured in violent clashes in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, between December and February. "Many are pointing the finger for the violence at elements of the Indonesian military, which appears to remain convinced that the Aceh Party, formed by former Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels, is still committed to independence," Loveard told WPR.
The Aceh Party is widely expected to be among the winners in the April 9 provincial polls, where 44 political parties are contesting seats at a district, regional and national level. That raises the threat of further violence in months to come.
"Former GAM fighters have not helped to calm the situation. They have tended to be behind a wave of crime, particularly in East Aceh, and have not integrated well into society," Loveard added.
International Crisis Group (ICG) says the Indonesian military's fears with regards to former Aceh rebels are misplaced. But a growing mistrust between the two, and an inability by the police to cope with the latest killings, has led to heightened tensions. "Getting through the election with a minimum of violence is the short-term goal," says Robert Templer, ICG Asia program director. "The longer-term objective should be to bolster the peace, but both sides will have to take concrete steps to address problems in their own ranks before any confidence-building measures will work."
Templer said the GAM leadership has repeatedly reiterated its commitment to the 2005 Helsinki agreement. Far from wanting to resume the conflict, most ex-combatants are more interested in getting what they see as their fare share of post-conflict benefits, in some cases through extortion. "But until the attacks -- including four murders in February and March of men associated with Partai Aceh -- are solved, suspicions of [Indonesian military] involvement will persist," he said.
Between Aceh and Papua lie thousands of islands and almost as many headaches for Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He will nevertheless use this poll to gauge support for his Democrat Party ahead of the main political event, presidential elections slated for July 8. Analysts expect Yudhoyono's personal popularity will entice smaller parties into a broader coalition with him -- if required -- after the presidential poll, while also prompting other parties to forge alliances in order to defeat him.
Most notable among the latter is Indonesian vice president and Golka chairman Yusuf Kalla, whose ambitions extend to the top job. Golkar, which has dominated Indonesian politics for the most part since independence, is reportedly considering an alliance with the Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), whose figurehead is former president Megawati Sukarnoputri.
However, any alliances will depend on the cross-currents that emerge from next week's parliamentary poll, which will also decide what parties can field which candidates.
Traditionally local elections do not always reflect general sentiment at the national level. This was evident at the 2004 poll when Yudhoyono's Democrats got just over 10 percent of the parliamentary vote. Three months later, Yudhoyono resoundingly won the presidency with a crushing 61 percent majority.
However, a political party or a coalition of parties wishing to field a candidate in the next presidential election will have to win 25 percent of the vote at the April parliamentary poll.
"That rather complicates things," regional analyst Greg Barton of Monash University in Melbourne said recently. "It's expected that Yudhoyono's Democrat Part will do very well next month precisely because of his popularity. Then we will see a sort of mutual reinforcing, I think, of presidential popularity and the popularity of his party," Barton added.
Luke Hunt is a Hong Kong-based correspondent and a World Politics Review contributing editor.