Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Black May 1998: 6th Commemoration (37 of 40)

Chinese Question Set to Sway Indonesia's Voters
By Shawn Donnan
Financial Times (UK) - September 15, 2004

Harun Hajadi is US-educated and successful. Pondering the state of the Indonesian economy, he speaks of the need for further measures to attract foreign investment and bemoans a missing sense of urgency among the country's leaders.

This should put him on the side of the reformers in Indonesia, where many characterise the presidential run-off election next Monday as a battle between entrenched interests. These are led by incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri and the forces for change, championed by her former security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

But Mr Hajadi is ethnically Chinese, which means that a more fundamental concern is driving his vote. Like many of his peers in the powerful Sino-Indonesian business community, the 43-year-old property executive says he plans to back Mrs Megawati on September 20, because of what he sees as the anti-Chinese stance of Mr Yudhoyono's running-mate, Jusuf Kalla.

Mr Kalla advocates affirmative action policies for the majority pribumi, or indigenous Indonesians, and has stubbornly defended that stance in an attempt to appeal to pribumi voters. On his official website ( he argues that "favouritism for pribumi should be reaffirmed and explicitly maintained".

Those factors may not prevent a victory for Mr Yudhoyono. The retired general has seen his popularity surge this year thanks to promises to tackle rampant corruption and stimulate an economy caught in a patchy recovery. With the final burst of campaigning having started yesterday, recent polls indicate he is the choice of up to 60 per cent of voters, with 30 per cent favouring Mrs Megawati.

However, Indonesian business is dominated by the ethnic Chinese minority. Should Mr Yudhoyono win, therefore, his government's relationship with that community will play a key part in his ability to jump-start the economy.

It could also have wider repercussions among the foreign investors Mr Yudhoyono is promising to woo. These have a long tradition of carefully monitoring flows of Sino-Indonesian capital and the community's sentiment.

Chinese-run businesses were allowed to thrive under former strongman Mr Suharto, even as their owners were the victims of institutionalised discrimination that prevented them from taking part in politics. After the 1998 riots that accompanied Mr Suharto's fall, however, local Chinese businesses became the targets of popular violence and much of that Sino-Indonesian capital fled to Singapore and elsewhere. The fear of many Chinese is that pro-pribumi comments such as Mr Kalla's could once again inflame anti-Chinese passions.

When Mr Yudhoyono picked Mr Kalla, a prominent pribumi businessman, as his running-mate earlier this year, he said Mr Kalla would oversee economic policy. That raised fears a new government in Jakarta could veer in a populist direction.

Economic advisers to Mr Yudhoyono now say this allocation of roles is unlikely to occur. Others point to reports of divisions between the two men - and to the fact the bookish former general has been reading up on economics.

He has also done more than his running-mate to address the Chinese community's fears, which are rooted in the May 1998 riots that led to Mr Suharto's fall and saw many Chinese-owned businesses targeted.

"The leader of this country must be a pluralist, must be a president for everyone," Mr Yudhoyono told a special forum earlier this month designed to address the Chinese community's concerns.

That message has registered with some prominent Chinese Indonesians, in spite of their concerns about Mr Kalla, whose father was a high-profile beneficiary of pro-pribumi economic policies in the 1950s.

"My family evacuated [to Singapore] in May 1998 because of the racial riots," says Lin Che Wei, a prominent financial analyst and adviser to Mr Yudhoyono on economic policy. "So do you think I would support someone who is actually racist?"

Other prominent Sino-Indonesians are willing to wait and see. "Jusuf Kalla has the reputation of being very anti-Chinese. But I think we should give him the benefit of the doubt," says Thee Kian Wie, a leading economic historian.

In the last six years, Chinese new year has become a national holiday and constitutional barriers to ethnic Chinese holding political office have been removed. Technically, ethnic Chinese are no longer required to carry special citizenship certificates, but the reality is that they are still often asked for by bureaucrats.

But many Chinese leaders remain convinced Mr Kalla would try to roll back those gains. "Just using the terms 'pribumi' and 'non-pribumi' is a step back for the country," says Lieus Sungkharisma, head of the Indonesian Chinese Reform party.

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