Sunday, September 19, 2004

A Minimal-Choice Election: The Killers Win No Matter What

On Monday, September 20 Indonesia is due to hold a presidential election which the country's murderous security forces are due to win no matter what.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, the incumbent president, took power three years ago behind army cannons (her predecessor, undercut by the armed forces, was impeached and she, as vice president, ascended) and later publicly told the military not to "worry about human rights" ("Indonesia's Megawati tells troops not to worry about rights abuses," AFP, December 29, 2001). But she is widely seen as incompetent, and, polls say, may be voted out for a smooth-talking former general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

As is often the case in minimal-choice elections -- which is to say, most elections in most countries -- this one has turned to an important extent on culturally resonant trivia (in this case, the general's poll ratings soared after he was personally insulted by the president's husband), and on voters being compelled to make fine, far-fetched, often grim, distinctions.

Dewi -- the pseudonym of a resident of a poor kampung in a major city -- says that her family and friends have been thinking that though they fear and loathe the army they might vote for Susilo anyway in order to thwart the police. Their calculation is that bad as the army is, for them the police are worse, and since the army and police are bitter rivals having an army man on top might marginally weaken a police force that has gotten "big heads" under Megawati.

Though its the army that does most massacres of civilians, most of that killing is geographically focused (in pro-independence Aceh and Papua, two of the country's 32 provinces) and most of the army's extortion is concentrated on the rich. It is mainly the police who abuse the poor nationwide. That is the division of labor. Last year the police locked up Dewi's step father and beat him until the family managed to buy his freedom with 2 million rupiah ($180 US dollars) -- the equivalent of four months' wages. A few months later her cousin was beaten to death on the street by a drunken gang of preman police informants. "[O]n a daily basis," a US Marine Corps study concluded, "the Police are the most visible instrument of government oppression" ... "one of the most disliked/hated organizations in the country" ("Indonesia Joint Cultural Intelligence Seminar," US Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, January 14, 1999).

If an Indonesian wants to vote against terror by their country's US-armed-and-trained security forces, they can't. No candidate represents their position. They are instead reduced to arcane calculations about which killer will be less prolific.