Indonesian election: Feuding villages give the ballot a try

TERNATE, North Maluku, Indonesia: Indonesia's first direct presidential election was held peacefully last Monday. That fact alone spelled success in a troubled country with an authoritarian past. As vote totals mounted at election headquarters in Jakarta, observers could project not only the outcome--they could also look forward with some confidence to a democratic future for the fourth most populous country and largest Muslim society on earth.

Seen from below, however, the world's biggest and most complex democratic experiment amounts to a set of promises still waiting to be fulfilled.

Half an hour by speedboat from Ternate and two more hours by jeep on damaged roads across the remote island of Halmera lie two adjacent villages, Sosol and Tahane. A clash between them on the night of August 18, 1999 had triggered near-anarchy here in the northern Maluku archipelago. Muslims fought Christians, then Muslims fought Muslims. More than a thousand died.

An Indonesian colleague and I went there on election day. We wanted to know whether the balloting would help heal or reopen North Maluku's wounds.

Sosol is a Christian village. In a near-whisper that reflected the sensitivity of the topic, the village secretary blamed the 1999 outbreak squarely on Muslim militants in Tahane. They had attacked Sosol en masse, he said. They had thrown rocks and torched homes while screaming "Allahu Akbar"--"God is great." Christian villages had counterattacked.

Interviewed in his home just down the road, the village chief of all-Muslim Tahane remembered differently: "They acted first," he said. People in Sosol had been drinking alcohol, forbidden to Muslims. From his side of the border he could hear the shouts of drunken Sosolans abusing Tahane; the Sosolans began seizing Tahanean houses, slashing the furniture, he said. He admitted that the first to die was killed by a Tahanean, "but they started it," he insisted. "They had weapons - arrows, bombs. What was I to do? Let them roll over us?"

Ever since the chief and his fellow villagers had arrived in Tahane in the 1970s, evacuees from a feared volcanic eruption on their home island in the south, the Sosolans had hated them and tried to get them to leave. Or so he said.

The roots of this conflict embrace many issues. They include religion, migration, ethnicity, customs, and access to land. But it was an action taken by the central government in far-off Jakarta that lit this volatile mix in 1999--a decree that transferred Sosol and several other largely Christian villages to the jurisdication of a new and mostly Muslim subdistrict, including Tahane. What looked in Jakarta like a purely administrative arrangement appeared to Sosolans to threaten their identity.

It has never been realistic here to expect the national government to understand what goes on in and between particular villages--not in a country this vast, diverse, and underdeveloped.

But democracy raises expectations. What happened on July 5 linked the electorate directly, almost personally, to individual candidates running for president and vice-president of the entire country.

Throughout our election-date tour of polling stations in northern Maluku we came across evidence of disappointment and hope in roughly equal measure.

Every villager we met either was or had been a refugee from the violence of the 1990s, and nearly every one had suffered. Yet when we asked who had supplied them with emergency food and housing materials to survive the crisis and rebuild, our informants rarely mentioned the Indonesian government.

We also found good news. Although Sosol and Tahane voted for opposing slates, old wounds stayed closed. The villagers were not about to let political rivalries between presidential candidates rekindle calamity. There was no violence on voting day, and turnouts were high in all the villages. If democracy requires civility and participation, the people of northern Maluku are ready and willing to do their part.

But will Indonesia's new president, when finally elected in a run-off this September, be willing and able to his or her part? Will campaign promises be kept?

Perhaps the most poignant hint of this country's fragility occurred when I asked the Sosol village secretary, "What is Indonesia?" For the first time in our conversation, he fell silent. Try as he might, he could not answer.

At the risk of wishful thinking, one can hope the election itself was a kind of answer.