In the context of widespread anger against the ousting of popular opposition figure Megawati Sukarnoputri from her position as leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), the elections on May 29 - the sixth to be held since General Suharto seized power in 1965 - may prove to be the one of the most significant challenges the regime has faced.
As in past elections, a range of strict measures are in place to ensure that the state party, Golkar, will win. These include favourable election laws, healthy funding and close ties to the military and the bureaucracy (see box).
Only two other parties are allowed to contest the elections, the PDI and the United Development Party (PPP). In all five previous elections, Golkar has won around 70%.
In the wake of a series of violent riots in which hundreds have been killed, late last year the government barred all outdoor election campaigning and ordered so-called indoor discussion sessions instead.
On January 30, the minister of internal affairs, Yogie S. Mamet, announced this year's election campaign rules, the most restrictive yet. All outdoor election campaigning has been prohibited, speeches must be "checked'' before being broadcast, and a tightly controlled election schedule will oblige the parties to campaign in designated areas and at set times. Public meetings - for which a permit must first be obtained - are to be held only indoors, between 9am and 6pm.
Megawati herself has been warned that she will not be permitted to attend PDI meetings and has been banned from staging her own campaign. Her candidates have already had been rejected.
Ten thousand police and soldiers are to be deployed in the greater Jakarta area, backed up by armoured vehicles and British-made Scorpion tanks, helicopters, motorcycles and other vehicles.
The reason the regime is so nervous is that for the first time Indonesians have someone they want to vote for - Megawati. Given that this is no longer possible, and the widespread dissatisfaction with the government, many may choose not to vote.
Golput (White Movement), first emerged in the 1971 elections as a campaign by students calling for not marking the ballot paper. It did not re-emerge until 1992, when large rallies were held by students on many campuses.
If large numbers of people cast blank ballots, it will certainly undermine the legitimacy of the elections. Of even greater concern to the authorities are calls for a mass boycott campaign.
On the morning of March 3, people in major cities across Indonesia awoke to find walls covered with slogans calling for a boycott. In a nationally coordinated action of the People's Democratic Party (PRD), graffiti and posters reading "Without Megawati, Boycott the 1997 elections'' and "Until the dual function of the military is withdrawn, Boycott the 1997 elections'' were drawn or plastered on walls in 11 cities.
In Jakarta, a PRD activist was chased and shot at by police. According to a press release sent to Green Left Weekly by the underground PRD, three of those involved have been captured - one during the paste-up and two others some time later. It is believed that two are in custody but the whereabouts of the third are unknown.
Even some of the regime's traditional allies are starting to come out publicly for such a campaign. In the first statement of its kind, the Catholic Church on February 13 told its followers that it would not be a sin to refuse to vote in this year's general elections "if you really do not feel represented and are sure with all your heart that your aspirations are not being heard''.
Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja, one the signatories of the statement, has been called in for questioning.
On February 25, the armed forces chief of social and political affairs, Syarwan Hamid, was quoted in the Indonesia Times as warning that any attempt "to encourage people not to vote is against the law''.
On March 1, Suharto was quoted in a number of Indonesian newspapers as offering to resign if it was the will of the people, but vowing to "clobber'' anyone who tries to force him out of office by unconstitutional means.
The new regulations have caused even the normally pliant PPP to complain. On February 25, it was reported that seven PPP branches in Central Java had sent a letter to the party's executive board recommending an election boycott in their areas.
Then on February 28, a meeting of PPP leaders formally agreed to ignore the new campaign rules and promised to resort to any method necessary to pursue their election campaign. It also approved the requests to boycott the campaign. The following day, a kilometre-long march through the streets of Yogyakarta was organised in defiance of the bans.
Sacked parliamentarian Sri Bintang Pamungkas, already facing a 34-month prison sentence for insulting Suharto, was arrested on March 6 and charged with subversion for calling for an election boycott. The call was made in Idul Fitri (end of the Muslim fasting month) greeting cards sent to numerous people, including the vice president, armed forces uarters, the attorney general and all cabinet ministers.
Sources within the PDI say that, having now exhausted all the "legitimate'' channels of opposition, the party's leadership intends to formally endorse an election boycott.
On March 3, Megawati attended a blood donation ceremony in north Jakarta where she was soon surrounded by 1000 supporters. Megawati asked the crowd: "Are the elections an obligation or a right?''. "A right'', they answered. "If so, then do you understand what must be done during the elections?'', she asked.
When pressed to explain, she added: "Wait until the PDI leadership make a clear statement on the issue of the elections''. There was no doubt in anybody's mind that she was referring to a call for a boycott.
First posted on the Pegasus conference greenleft.news by Green Left Weekly. Correspondence and hard copy subsciption inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org
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