Search Thursday May 6, 2004

Philip Bowring: Indonesia's election went surprisingly well
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Thursday, April 29, 2004

HONG KONG: Indonesia’s democratic political process is maturing faster than seemed possible five months, let alone five years ago. There are plenty of bumps ahead and there is no certainty that the political process will lead to more effective, less corrupt governance. But, credit where it is due. The recent parliamentary election was remarkably trouble-free for such a diverse and populous country with a poor reputation for administrative efficiency. It augurs well for the two rounds of the presidential election in July and September. Participation was a high 80 percent, a reflection of a popular desire to participate even if voters have quickly learned to take a cynical view of politicians’ promises. They also proved capable of coping with a complex electoral system that provides an opportunity to vote for individuals and/or parties. The result suggests voters are rather more capable of judging performance than they had been given credit for. They handed a deservedly resounding defeat to President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s party, PDI-P, whose share of the vote fell from 34 percent to 19 percent. But contrary to many pundits’ predictions, there were few votes for Suharto nostalgia. Golkar, the party of the Suharto-era elite, gained nothing. Despite good organization, plenty of money and the unpopularity of Megawati, Golkar’s share of the vote was 21 percent, against 22 percent in 1999. It remains especially weak on Java, home to 60 percent of the population. Nor was there any shift from secular to Muslim parties. The faith-based parties were static at around one third of the total vote. The beneficiaries of swings within the secular and Muslim categories showed a desire for better government. One was the Democrat party, the vehicle of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general and, until recently Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs, a man with a clean, competent reputation. The other, the Justice party, espouses Shariah law but bases its appeal more on its anticorruption credentials and grass-roots organization. Both these parties polled exceptionally well in Jakarta, a sign that there is still momentum for change and reform in Indonesia. Distaste for Megawati’s instinct to sit on her throne and do little does not translate into desire for reversion to the past. The parliamentary election has already had its impact on the presidential election, the first round of which is in July. One of Golkar’s more respected figures, Jusuf Kalla, has jumped ship to become Susilo’s presidential running mate. He is quite a catch, given his Muslim credentials, and he adds a non-Java element to the ticket. Meanwhile Golkar has, to the surprise of many, chosen Wiranto, former armed forces chief under Suharto, as its candidate. Given that Wiranto has been accused of war crimes in East Timor, that scarcely counts as progress. But at least Golkar conducted an election among its members, an improvement on the kretek-filled-room politics of the past. Wiranto has a high profile and his Timor role will not count against him locally, but the extent of his national popularity is in doubt. Golkar’s organization might be enough to get him to second place in July and thus the run-off in September. Much will depend on what alliances are now forged by Megawati, Wiranto and Susilo — all from secular parties — with the three main Muslim parties and which of those will field its own candidates in the first round. There is particular focus on the machinations of former President Abdurrahman Wahid, whose party, PKIB, is the largest and most flexible of the Muslim parties. A further complication is the future of the Islamic intellectual, parliamentary speaker and past presidential king-maker Amien Rais. Once associated with a strongly Muslim agenda, his now nominally secular PAN party scored poorly in the election but he has a high personal profile and ambitions to unite the Muslim parties behind him. As of now, Susilo seems to be the frontrunner, but because of the complexity of the political set-up, none of the others can be written off. This is Indonesia’s first direct election of a president and will test how far voters follow the party line or the individual. Will the magic of the name Sukarnoputri make up for the failings of Megawati and her PDI-P party? Can Susilo’s personal reputation trump Wiranto’s party machine? It is all rather messy. But Indonesians do understand the role that democracy — at regional as well as national level — can play in keeping their diverse country united and tolerant and in providing some accountability in a system where corruption is endemic.