Indonesia’s democratic strength

Author: Peter Drysdale, Editor, East Asia Forum

Democracy has taken a battering in Southeast Asia in recent times, as Thailand, the region’s second-largest economy and one of its economic success stories over the past few decades, has fallen prey to yet another military coup. So it is with a mixture of pride and relief that Indonesia — the region’s largest economy, the world’s third-largest democracy, the world’s largest Muslim country and the epicentre of the ASEAN polity — is on the cusp of successful completion of the election of its new president and the deeper entrenchment of its democratic institutions. Whatever uncertainties remain until the last vote is counted and the result formally declared on 22 July, this is a great victory for the people of Indonesia and ASEAN, of which Indonesia is at the heart.

Continuation of the success of democratic transition in Indonesia is good news for the region and the world. Despite some disappointments with the Yudhoyono presidency, it saw Indonesia emerge on the world stage as a strong economy and with a confidence that restored coherence and direction to ASEAN’s regional centrality.

‘The all-but-certain defeat of ex-general Prabowo Subianto’, as Ed Aspinall describes it in our trifecta of leading commentators on Indonesia’s presidential election last week, ‘and the election of Jakarta governor Joko Widodo (Jokowi), represents not only the victory of one candidate over another but also the preservation of Indonesia’s post-Suharto democratic system — if only by the skin of its teeth’.

As Marcus Mietzner says in his analysis: ‘The contrast between the two candidates couldn’t have been starker: on one side was Prabowo, the tough-talking, populist former son-in-law of long-time autocrat Suharto, whose openly xenophobic rhetoric scared investors but attracted those segments of the Indonesian electorate longing for a firm leader; and on the other side was Jokowi, a man from humble origins who had made his way from a small furniture business in Solo in Central Java to the governor’s office in the capital Jakarta’.

The efficiency with which an election of the scale of the Indonesian contest was run ought to be a matter of national pride. Indonesia consists of more than 17,000 islands that stretch from Aceh in the west to West Papua on the border of Papua New Guinea in the east and cover three time zones. This is only the third time in history that the country voted directly to elect its president, in the world’s second-largest single-day election — India takes a month to elect its parliament and indirectly its prime minister; the United States chooses its electoral colleges and indirectly its president on a single day. The turnout appears to have been close to a whopping 80 per cent and running the poll passed without significant incident.

At the same time, Mietzner points out, the campaign was one with an edge to it — ‘one of the dirtiest election campaigns in Indonesian history’, he says. Prabowo was advised by American consultants, previously tutors to Republican candidates on how to drown out opponents in smear campaigns. Prabowo’s electoral machine spread false rumours that Jokowi was a Singaporean Chinese and a Christian. Jokowi, pushed onto the defensive by the bite of these attacks among Indonesia’s devout Muslim community, could never really develop his own narrative and platform. As a result, his once seemingly unassailable lead over Prabowo in the polls (in December 2013, he was ahead by 39 percentage points) melted away rapidly in a race that at the end was too close to call.

In the hours following the close of voting, it looked as though there was a narrow but clear victory for Jokowi, based on the now-established Indonesian practice of quite accurate exit poll surveys and quick counts conducted by the country’s increasingly sophisticated polling industry. These gave Jokowi a 4–5 per cent margin over his rival, Prabowo. Jokowi claimed victory. Prabowo followed suit, on the basis of other, more partisan polls, and set in train worries about a messy wrangle over the outcome.

Jokowi might have been well advised to wait on process or concession. Whatever the case, the Indonesian people have done their job, and as Andrew MacIntyre suggests, the country’s adjudicative institutions are now likely to prove up to the task up of doing theirs, in which case ‘this election will have constituted a bigger step forward in the country’s political evolution than any could have guessed’.

Even if he has won the presidential race, Prabowo’s allies hold a parliamentary majority and it will be difficult to govern with a parliamentary minority without securing the allegiance of opposition parties through offers of cabinet posts, transactional politics of the kind that Jokowi abhors.

So what can be expected of the new Indonesian presidency is still to unfold. Maintaining the momentum of strong economic growth and the entrenchment of social change will require bold new strategies. There is a worry that Indonesia might retreat from the challenge. Indonesia’s Southeast Asian neighbours look to Indonesian leadership to bed down the ASEAN Economic Community and East Asian regional initiatives in 2015. MacIntyre thinks, given the inward-looking nationalist mood in the country, that neither candidate would have been likely to introduce strongly market-strengthening reforms as they faced ‘the vexing challenge of passing legislation in a multi-party coalition environment’.

Could a Jokowi presidency surprise?

Certainly Jokowi is a new kind of Indonesian leader. He is a devout Muslim. In the three days before the election in which Indonesian law forbids campaigning, Jokowi made a lightening pilgrimage to Mecca. But he also embraces religious pluralism. Jokowi far outpolled Mr Prabowo among Indonesia’s religious minorities. He is a man of the streets and neighbourhoods, whereas past Indonesian leaders have ruled from on high. He has no ties to the Suharto regime, unlike most of his predecessors, and that will represent a major shift if he gains the presidency.

Jokowi has been underestimated before. Indonesia faces a new international economic and strategic circumstance and standing still will not be the easiest option. Indeed, his capacity to attract powerful technocratic advice could see Jokowi pursue a more proactive and internationalist agenda than his antecedents have led most to predict, if the final count gives him the top job.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.

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