Vol. 12, No. 2,856W - The American Reporter - March 18, 2006

Reporting: Indonesia

by Andreas Harsono
American Reporter Correspondent
Tetewang Village, Indonesia

TETEWANG VILLAGE, Halmahera, Indonesia, July 7, 2004 -- When Johny Punene began to shout out the presidential vote tally in front of his fellow villagers on Monday morning, neither Punene nor his audience, mostly fishermen and clove farmers, were expecting a recount.

As Punene shouted, "Wiranto, tidak sah" or "Megawati tidak sah," Abner Lasano, the only school teacher in this remote village on the island of Halmahera in eastern Indonesia, would add a single mark on the column named "illegal votes" on the wall.

Wiranto and Megawati Sukarnoputri are the names of the two leading presidential candidates competing for the chief executive seat in Indonesia's first direct presidential election on Monday July 5. More than 15 million voters throughout Indonesia visited nearly 600,000 voting stations to cast their ballots for one of five candidates, making it logistically one of the most complicated elections in the world.

It is also a historic moment for Indonesian citizens who grew used to dictatorships in the half century since Indonesia's founding fathers declared the country's independence from Dutch colonialism and Japanese occupation in 1945.

"Tidak sah" means "illegal," but most of the so-called "illegal votes" actually occurred because voters made a single punch but created double holes on the folded ballot paper - on the picture of the candidate as well as on the cover paper. Election volunteers like Punene followed the election rules by declaring "tidak sah," although he could easily see that voters cast votes for only one candidate.

Ferdinand Punene, Johny's uncle, who used to be the Tetewang village head, just mumbled as he stood witnessing the strange phenomena. Why, if voters only chose one candidate, was the result declared "illegal?" He said many voters were obviously not given "clear instruction" on how to punch the ballots to create only a single hole.

Many villagers were also puzzled when the tally was counted and 49 out of 176 ballots, or about 26 percent of the total vote, were declared "tidak sah."

President Megawati, retired generals Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Wiranto, and Vice President Hamzah Haz got 78, 40, eight and one votes, respectively. Amien Rais, the speaker of the People's Consultative Assembly, got no vote in this village.

It was only several hours later when news began to dribble out of Jakarta, the capital of this vast archipelago, that the General Election Commission had ordered "illegal votes" to be considered "legal," meaning that there should be a national recount.

Commissioner Anas Urbaningrum, who looked exhausted, appeared on Jakarta televisions, asking volunteers like Punene to recount the votes. "We held a meeting this morning and decided that those votes should be considered legal," he said. Urbaningrum said the recount would occur wherever it is considered necessary, and was not not sure how many votes were affected.

The time difference between Jakarta and Tetewang is two hours. When Urbaningrum appeared on television screens, the Tetewang voting station had been already closed for more than five hours. Ballot boxes had already been sealed and sent to other offices higher up in the governmental hierarchy. The villagers had gone home.

Even worse, only one Tetewang family has a television set. The village has no telephone line, no electricity, and no tap water. It is one of many Halmahera villages destroyed during the sectarian conflict that ripped this and neighboring islands between 1999 and 2000.

"We have elections today, but over the years we have not yet become free. We have never experienced the fruit of development," said Ferdinand Punene. In another village on Ternate Island, a main trading island about 30 minutes by speedboat from Sidangoli, the closest harbor town to Tetewang, about half of the votes were considered illegal.

Wiranto, who is a former Indonesian military commander, was considering a legal challenge in the Constitutional Court to the results of the election due to the double-hole problem. Wiranto is a favorite to win the election in the Ternate area, after Sultan Ternate Mudaffar Sjah, an aristocrat who still has wide influence in these islands, threw his support behind Wiranto.

Wiranto's advisor, Slamet Effendi Yusuf, said the problem of the validity of double-holed ballots threw the whole electoral process into doubt. The result appears to have knocked Wiranto out of the race. "We're discussing that," he said. "We're studying reports from the regions."

On Wednesday, Wiranto seemed likely to come out third in the polling with 22 percent or almost 13 million votes cast on Monday, ruling him out of the run-off election on Sept. 20. According to the Election Commission, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had about 34 percent or about 19 million votes compared with second-place President Megawati, with 27 percent or slightly more than 15 million votes.

Amien Rais had about eight million votes, or 14.5 percent. In last place was vice-president Hamzah Haz, with about three percent, or 1. million votes.

A projection of the final results issued Monday by the U.S. National Democratic Institute (NDI) and a local group gives Yudhoyono 33.2 percent, Megawati 26 percent and Wiranto 23.3 percent. The same group's projection following the April general election proved accurate.

If current trends continue, no candidate will get the required 50 percent plus one vote required for outright victory following Indonesia's first direct presidential election. The current projections would pitch Yudhoyono, who resigned as Megawati's top security minister in March, against his former boss in the runoff.

Most Tetewang villagers still do not know who won the election. But Erni Gofotor, a homemaker who helped organize the polling station, said that the villagers want to have a leader, whoever was elected, who could provide security and bring prosperity. "Sometimes I want to return to the refugee camp because life was better there," she said.

"In the camp I could make and sell cookies. Here, what could I do?" Gofotor asked plaintively, adding that most villagers ran away from Tetewang in December 1999 and returned only to see all of their homes burned down. Their longboats were also torched and their clove plantations destroyed.

Tetewang is a Christian village. The violence began in August 1999 over a land dispute between five Christian villages and the surrounding Muslim community. Two Christians were killed, prompting the other Christian villages to acts of revenge that brought Muslim retaliation in a deadly mix of land disputes and religious clashes involving not only the villagers but politicians. The bloody conflict only began to calm down last year when both sides were tired of fighting.

By then, almost all of the houses and public buildings on this island had burned down. Abner Lasano has to teach 105 elementary school students by himself. "They ranged from grade one to grade six," said Lasano. The school is a crude shack made of discarded lumber that offers little shelter from the elements.

AR Indonesia Correspondent won a Neiman International Fellowship at Harvard University in 1999. He writes for leading Indonesian news and featuyre publications

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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