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Indonesia: Citizens Have Poor Grasp of Democracy

By Vaudine England | South China Morning Post | March 16, 1999 | 2 pages

Only three per cent of Indonesians see any connection between democracy and elections but nearly everyone intends to vote in the country’s June poll.

Indonesians also feel cautiously optimistic about their country’s direction and future despite their concerns about the economy, according to the first nationwide survey of Indonesians’ views.

“The survey shows most Indonesians are hopeful for the future and want fair elections that deliver change,” the survey says.

But it also indicates that many do not know they need to register to vote, are uncertain if this year’s election will be fairer than the past and are unfamiliar with many of the basic tenets of democracy.

“While many people want to vote, and believe this election will be fairer then the 1997 election, many voters still need reassurance that the 1999 election will really be free and fair and will make a difference”

The random survey, conducted by AC Nielsen and Charney Research, is based on in-depth interviews conducted in November.

It represents the first comprehensive test of opinion since the events of last year, which saw longstanding president, Suharto deposed amid violence, riots and economic crisis.

Election experts are now studying and acting on the survey’s findings, which they describe as “extremely useful” building blocks for the forthcoming polls.

The survey was released in co-operation with the United Nations Development Programme and the Voter Education Clearing House of Yogyakarta, with support from the Asia Foundation.

The overwhelming concern of Indonesians remains economic pain. The rising price of basic necessities was considered the country’s top problem by 70 per cent of the electorate. Almost every Indonesian family has suffered from the crisis.

People are worried about the rising violence and political conflict, but say they feel dramatically freer to express their views. A striking conclusion of the survey is that 63 percent of respondents feel that the Government listens to their concerns.

The same percentage also has no idea how democracy might have anything to do with improving their daily lives. Among the minority who do think democracy might be relevant, the idea is that democracy will lead to an improvement in the economy.

“They see democracy more as a means of solving their most pressing problem ö the economic crisis ö than as a means of ensuring their rights,” the survey reports.

“Although Indonesians do have an understanding of what elections ought to be, they have little concrete awareness of the political nature of democracy, the central role elections play within it, or its potential impact on their lives.”

That is not surprising, considering the decades of de-politicization practiced by Mr. Suharto, and the survey’s finding that only six percent of Indonesians are “very interested” in politics.

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