Indonesia: Will A Dose Of Democracy Make Things Worse?

After 18 months of political instability and economic crisis, Indonesians are looking anxiously to June 7. That's when the country is expected to hold its freest national elections since 1955. Indonesians hope that the vote will end the turmoil and allow the sick nation to return to health.

But it probably won't. Indonesia seems headed for more rough times, almost no matter what happens in the ballot. Weak government, economic hardship, and continuing social unrest are all likely. The reason is that Indonesians, getting their first taste of democracy after more than four decades of autocratic rule, must choose among 48 political parties. Some are Islamic, with vast grassroots support, but many are populist splinter groups that pander to ethnic minorities among the country's 200 million people. That renders remote the chances of a stable, credible government in Jakarta.

Separatist movements and sectarian violence heighten the tension. Indonesia has 17,000 islands and hundreds of ethnic groups. It has held together only under the military-backed rule of previous Presidents Suharto and Sukarno. Now, "what's happening is a kind of social disintegration," says Harold Crouch, a professor at Australian National University.

BREAKUP. The ongoing strife is mainly limited to brutal ethnic killings on the islands of Ambon and Borneo. But the country's three separatist movements have been emboldened by President B.J. Habibie's offer to allow East Timor independence if voters reject limited autonomy in a referendum. On Apr. 5, East Timorese independence leader Xanana Gusmao, who is under house arrest in Jakarta, ordered all his compatriots to wage war on the Indonesian occupation forces. Now, people in the resource-rich provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya want similar referendums, too. Indeed, Habibie was pressured into drafting a law granting some autonomy to every province. While most analysts don't think Indonesia is in imminent danger of disintegrating, some worry about just that. "The choice is significant decentralization or a high risk of a breakup of the nation," says Adam Schwarz, an Indonesia expert at Johns Hopkins University.

Even if one party were to sweep the polls, that wouldn't necessarily produce stability. Golkar, the party of President Habibie, backed Suharto for 33 years. With a still-strong organization in place, Golkar may be able to win 30% to 35% of the vote. That would enable it to form a coalition government with some of the smaller parties and, through Indonesia's complicated electoral system, pick the next President--most likely Habibie. Yet resentment is such that, "if they win, they'll be accused of cheating," says Jusuf Wanandi, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.

In theory, Golkar and two large, moderate Islamic parties could join in a coalition, mollify nearly everyone, and bring about stability. But Islamic candidate Abdurrahman Wahid refuses to be in a coalition with fellow Islamic leader Amien Rais and says his 34 million conservative followers won't let him join with the only female candidate, the popular Megawati Sukarnoputri, either. Such rivalries virtually ensure that any coalition will be fractious. And a delay until Aug. 24 for the new Parliament to pick the President adds to the instability.

Indonesia also has its work cut out if it is to pull off free and fair elections in less than two months. It postponed voter registration until Apr. 5, and then election commission officials admitted that no registration forms had been printed. But Golkar insists it is committed to going ahead. "Elections won't resolve everything," concedes Golkar Vice-Chairman Marzuki Darusman. "They'll just mark the entering of a new phase of politics." Or a new phase of crisis.