The New York Times

May 20, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

Indonesia’s Prospects


JAKARTA — Indonesia is enjoying the glow of having conducted a generally peaceful and fair — if poorly organized — legislative election. Its democracy looks in fine shape compared with its Southeast Asian neighbors. Its transformation since 1998 to the world’s third most populous democracy and an exemplar of a mainly Muslim but robustly plural nation has been remarkable. It is also receiving some warmth as the boyhood home of Barack Obama.

But as Indonesia moves toward a July vote for the presidency — only the second direct election in its history — there is worry that the process has become a struggle for the spoils of office rather than a battle over policies.

Almost all the players in the presidential race are holdovers from the Suharto era, which ended in 1998. The incumbent president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, looks almost certain to win, so the focus is shifting from the election itself to Yudhoyono’s next government. Even with a large popular mandate, his Democrat Party has only 20 percent of the seats in the legislature and he must forge alliances. But with whom?

The other question is whether he will appear more decisive in his second term or stick to consensus-building by pushing a closely defined agenda.

He now has two opponents. The first is Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president and the daughter of the independence leader Sukarno. Her presidency was undistinguished but her party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), stands for a centralized, secular and nationalist agenda. This, as well as opportunism, explains why her vice presidential running mate is the former general and Suharto son-in-law Prabowo Subianto despite his brutal treatment as Special Forces commander in 1998 of Megawati’s pro-democracy supporters.

The second is Yusuf Kalla, Yudhoyono’s running mate in 2004 and currently vice president. A businessman and head of Golkar, the party created by Suharto and home to a broad spectrum of conservatives and opportunists, he has teamed up with yet another throwback to the past — Wiranto, the last army commander under Suharto who is accused by the U.N. of human rights abuses in East Timor.

Kalla is a reluctant candidate who declared only after Yudhoyono had signaled that he did not want him as running mate. He is generally viewed as decisive but Yudhoyono was wary of his business links and, unlike in 2004, has no need of Golkar support. Kalla is facing a tough time keeping Golkar behind him. Meanwhile, Yudhoyono has shown his desire for a freer hand by choosing an apolitical civil servant, the central bank governor, Boediono, as his running mate. Boediono, 66, ranks high on competence and integrity.

Yudhoyono’s first term has seen competent economic management but, except for a serious effort to fight corruption, slow progress on reform. The economic environment has been benign and Indonesia, less dependent than most of Asia on exports, is still growing. But tougher times lie ahead if commodity prices stay weak.

An election landslide should give Yudhoyono huge authority. But it could also lead, some believe, to him assuming the remote demeanor of a Javanese monarch, reigning as much as ruling.

This election is also failing to bring up younger people who may be suitable candidates in 2014. Of the six candidates, only Prabowo, now 57, may still be young enough. As son of a famous Suharto-era finance minister and brother of a big businessman, he may have the money and high profile needed in a system where party loyalties are weak. But the trend toward personalization of politics does not appear threatening to an elite whose composition has changed little since Suharto’s overthrow. So what is good for stability and democracy is not necessarily good for progress.