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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Indonesia's Tests Ahead

Indonesia's first free national elections in decades marked an important first step on a path that could make the country the world's third-largest democracy. But as Indonesia strives to be a democracy, it must overcome a disastrous economic downturn, serious ethnic violence and several secessionist movements.

The June 7 parliamentary elections themselves reflected the competing strains of hope and pessimism. In an atmosphere largely free of violence, voters could choose among 48 parties on the ballot, a decisive break with the past, when the options were three government-approved official parties, with Golongan Karya, or Golkar for short, the longtime government party, the clear "choice." Domestic and international observers, furthermore, found few irregularities at the country's more than 300,000 polling stations. Yet, the slow pace of vote counting - only 40 percent of the votes had been tallied 10 days after the polls closed - has fueled suspicions of vote buying on the part of Golkar.

As with any nascent democracy, there are a number of immediate challenges to be met. First, the sheer number of political parties participating in the provincial and parliamentary elections showed that no party or leader has captured the people's imagination after 32 years of Suharto. As a result, the new parliament will most likely be fragmented, making coalition rule inevitable.

So far, the Indonesian Democratic Party, or PDI, led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, is winning a plurality, with about 35 percent to 40 percent of the vote. Whether it can form an effective parliamentary coalition remains to be seen. What role Islam will play in forging any such coalition is equally uncertain. There are also concerns that Golkar may garner enough votes to assemble a ruling coalition in parliament. It's certain that political and economic reform will proceed more slowly as parties with limited political experience struggle for consensus.

A second challenge is this fall's presidential election. Indonesia's president will be selected by a People's Consultative Assembly composed of the new parliament's 500 members and 200 representatives from the provinces and various social organizations, who will be named by President B.J. Habibie according to a still undetermined formula. To say the least, this appointment process bears watching.

More important, with only 700 individuals forming the electoral body, the possibility of vote buying cannot be ignored. If the presidential election bears any mark of having been bought, particularly after successful parliamentary elections, citizens will surely riot again. What the military would do in such circumstances is unclear. The presidential election is likely to be especially sensitive politically.

Indonesians will expect the new government to deliver economic growth and national stability. The country's economy has suffered more than any other in Asia as a result of the global economic crisis that began in Thailand in the summer of 1997. Last year, it contracted 15 percent. Its currency, the rupiah, currently trades at about one-third of its 1997 value versus the dollar. International investors have been scared off by political uncertainty, while Indonesia's Chinese community, terrorized during riots last year, has scattered and taken billions in investment capital with them. Reversing these economic trends, while swiftly strengthening such institutions as the legal system and the banking sector, would be a major task even for a mature democracy, let alone a nascent one.

A final challenge is Indonesia's ethnic woes. Ethnic and religious violence has continued in more than half-a-dozen locations, and independence movements are raging in East Timor, Irian Jaya and Aceh. Thoughtful Indonesians realize that with 200 million people, more than 300 languages, the world's largest Moslem population and many other religions, their country's diversity contains many ingredients for Indonesia's disintegration.

The most notable and intractable ethnic issue remains East Timor, where plans for an August referendum on the region's status have unleashed new rounds of violence among several groups. Use of UN peacekeepers before, during and for a time after the vote is now under consideration, in part because of worries about the role of the Indonesian military in East Timor. Given the multiple factions in the province, it's foolish to expect much stability after the vote, irrespective of the outcome. At the same time, it's critical that East Timor not become the sole focus of international attention.

The United States and other countries should continue to support Indonesia's efforts to restore economic growth, re-establish political and social stability and make democracy work. The international community can help by funding projects that improve prospects for agriculture and for small and medium-sized enterprises, vital sectors for increasing employment; it can assist projects that strengthen the legal system and help curb corruption; it can help to train the civil service and the staff of the new parliament; it can support Indonesia's nongovernmental organizations, which are trying to keep the peace at community levels and protect human rights during this transition period.

The demise of President Suharto's authoritarian regime promises greater openness and freedom. It also can create a vacuum of leadership and widespread instability. Indonesians do not underestimate the challenges ahead as they struggle to rebuild their economy and make a democracy. Nor should the international community.

Walter P. Falcon is Farnsworth professor of international agricultural policy at Stanford University. William P. Fuller is president of the Asia Foundation. They contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.