At first glance, it hardly looked like a vision of democratic perfection. One presidential candidate was the nationalist daughter of a former strongman, while the incumbent was a retired general whose in-law was just jailed for corruption. Two of the vice-presidential nominees have been accused of directing human-rights abuses during their military careers. Yet the election that took place in Indonesia on July 8 is, in fact, testament to the remarkable political experiment unfolding in the world’s fourth most-populous nation.
Upwards of 100 million voters scattered across 920-plus permanently inhabited islands went to the voting booth on Wednesday, with early polls showing incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono commanding a comfortable lead over challengers Megawati Sukarnoputri and Jusuf Kalla. But regardless of whether SBY, as Yudhoyono is commonly known, prevails, just the fact that the election proceeded with a minimum of violence and vote-rigging accusations is very good news.
Little more than a decade ago, tens of thousands of Indonesians joined together in a People-Power overthrow of dictator Suharto, who had ruled for 32 years. Since then, the country has had four presidents, with peaceful transitions of power between each leader. Indonesia’s success at the ballot box has silenced skeptics who used geographic or religious rationales to spell doom for the country’s political future. Indeed, compared to places like Malaysia and Thailand, where democratic institutions are stagnating if not backsliding, Indonesia has cemented its status as the region’s political role model.
As the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia proves that democracy and Islam need not be incompatible. Even though many leaders of Indonesian Islamic political parties first gained inspiration from the Iranian revolution in 1979, Indonesia today is hardly in danger of hardening into a theocracy willing to gun down unarmed protesters. True, shari’a-based initiatives have proliferated on the local level and more Indonesian women wear the veil today than three decades ago. But on a national level, Islamic parties fared poorly in April’s legislative polls, winning nine percentage points fewer than they did in 2004. And since a spate of deadly bombings on vacation isle Bali and capital Jakarta a few years ago, the country’s intelligence service has been more successful in dismantling the local Jemaah Islamiah terrorist network than practically any other country with homegrown terror movements.
Of course, many Indonesians feel that change hasn’t come fast enough. Around 15% of the country subsists below the poverty line. Corruption still corrodes efforts to increase foreign investment and degrades daily life for everyone from pedi-cab drivers to entrepreneurs. On its graft perception index that assigns the cleanest countries a rank of 1, global corruption watchdog Transparency International rates Indonesia a dismal 126th out of 180 nations, worse than Nigeria or Nepal.
Nevertheless, Indonesia has so far emerged from the global financial crisis surprisingly unscathed. Although exports are down, the country recorded 4.4% growth in the first quarter of this year. Local banks are unburdened with the kind of debt crippling financial institutions in other countries. A monthly consumer-confidence survey elicited the second-highest level of optimism since August 2006. Buoying hopes is SBY’s choice for vice-presidential running mate, principled former central-bank governor Boediono. Expectations are high that the incumbent President, if re-elected as expected, will continue the anti-graft drive that animated his first term. Indeed, investment bank Morgan Stanley is so impressed with Indonesia’s performance that it wondered in a June report whether the country should be added to the so-called “BRIC club” of economic up-and-comers Brazil, Russia, India and China.
Before the April legislative elections, in which SBY’s Democratic Party proved its burgeoning popularity by tripling its showing from the last polls, I walked the streets of Yogyakarta in central Java, marveling at the colorful profusion of campaign posters, the red-and-white star motif of the Democrats, the black bull of Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle and the green banyan tree of Kalla’s Golkar Party. Taxis had their radios tuned to political talk shows, and youths on motorcycles revved their engines as they carried their chosen parties’ flags through town. I knew that many of these young campaigners were canvassing in exchange for pocket money or gas for their bikes. Still, the democratic energy in Indonesia was undeniable, as omnipresent as the smell of fried shallots and clove cigarettes. On a continent where so many people doubt that their vote can make a difference, that’s impressive enough.
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