Friday, March 27, 2009

Indonesia's unlikely – and steady – democracy

As it prepares for elections, the country outshines its neighbors

A decade ago, Indonesia was often written off by analysts as
unstable and perilously close to being dismembered piece by
fractious piece in the wake of the tragedy in East Timor and
ethnic and religious tensions throughout the vast archipelago.
But heading into national elections scheduled for April 9, its
democracy seems to be in pretty good shape 11 years after
rioting and economic meltdown forced out former President
Suharto, the strongman who ran the country for 32 years.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the retired general who took
power in national elections in 2004 on an anticorruption ticket,
has considerably solidified his position. In 2004, his
Democratic Party was a relatively minor force that forged an
uncomfortable coalition with the Golkar Party and its chairman,
Jusuf Kalla, who became Yudhoyono's vice president. Recent polls
(which can be notoriously unreliable), however, have the
Democratic Party with nearly a quarter of the electorate, if the
Indonesian Survey Institute data is anywhere near accurate.

With nearly 40 parties lined up to vie for hundreds of seats in
Regional Representative Councils or the 560 seats up for grabs
in the national House of Representatives, or DPR, the big
question is what happens after the elections, when the real
strength of the major players is determined and serious
jockeying will begin to for the presidential election to be held
in July, which will likely be followed by a runoff.

The game is complicated because under the election laws a party
cannot nominate a presidential candidate unless it wins 20
percent of the seats or 25 percent of the vote in legislative
elections – the only party likely to reach that milestone is the
president's Democratic Party. A handful of others – Golkar,
former President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Democratic Party of
Struggle, or PDI-P, the new Gerindra Party of right-wing former
Army General Prabowo Subianto – will be in the running to form
coalitions to reach the 20 percent threshold in order to make a
run for the top spot.

And here the Islamists play a potential role, especially the
Prosperous Justice Party, or PKS, which rose in popularity in
2004. While Islamic parties generally have seen their support
shrink by most measures, the complex electoral arithmetic – and
lack of any real issues other than flag waving and sloganeering
– could yet find the PKS in a potential presidential coalition
with either Golkar or the Democrats, both of which bill
themselves as nationalist and secular. That courtship began late
last year when the two parties both backed an unpopular and
hard-edged anti-pornography bill pushed by religious extremists
as a way to curry favor with potential Islamist coalition

Andi Mallarangeng, a spokesman for Yudhoyono, told CNN recently
that the president's support for the bill was a "symbolic
gesture" to Islamists. "During the process of legislation, [the
government] made sure we do not support pornography,"
Mallarangeng told CNN. "But there should be no limitation on
freedom of arts and expression"

Unfortunately, critics have said the bill undermines traditional
culture by proscribing traditional dances, could eventually ban
swimsuits from the beaches of Bali and may lead to rampant
vigilantism. The measure is being put through the courts by
reformers who hope to nullify it.

Still, Indonesia's imperfect democracy is in better odor than
most of the rest of Southeast Asia and there is little fear here
that serious mayhem will come from the polls, despite some
worrying signs of fraud in the voter lists in populous East Java
and continuing ethnic tensions in Papua.

Thailand is still suffering the after effects of the 2006
royalist coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra's democratically
elected government. The royalty and political establishment
there later annulled elections and supported street
demonstrations in its effort to finally manipulate the system
into putting in place the government it wanted, led now by the
Democrat Party.

Malaysia, after a surprising election in March 2008 that broke
the two-thirds majority stranglehold of the national ruling
coalition in parliament, has fallen into both intraparty and
ethnic squabbling and appears set to name Najib Tun Razak as
prime minister, despite his involvement in a long series of
scandals, including connections with the spectacular murder of a
beautiful Mongolian woman.

The Philippines is still trying to shake off the hangover of
2001's People Power II ouster of Joseph Estrada, which was
little more than a coup disguised as a big street demonstration.
That event just added fuel to the idea, as it did in Thailand,
that indignant elites do not have to wait for an elected
government to finish out its term.

Elsewhere, Singapore, of course, is Singapore, which maintains a
thin façade of democracy designed to keep the ruling Lee family
in power. Laos and Vietnam are one-party states as, effectively,
is Cambodia under Hun Sen. And Burma's military dictatorship
remains one of the world's most reviled governments.

Contrast them with Indonesia and things look pretty good. With a
certain amount of ambiguity, a new class of politician is
coalescing around Yudhoyono. The old guard that surrounded
Suharto, which viewed government as a personal cash register, is
losing momentum although all the major presidential candidates
hail from the old guard. The new government, if Yudhoyono wins,
will probably see a proliferation of the kinds of technocrats
like Sri Mulyani Indrawati, the finance minister, and Mari E
Pangestu, the trade minister, with fewer politicians around the

Golkar, the political vehicle for Suharto, was still the
dominant political party in 2004, with Kalla largely able to
dictate the terms of his support for Yudhoyono, including
putting in place old-guard cabinet members like Aburizal Bakrie,
the head of the Bakrie clan whose troubled empire has benefited
repeatedly from government intervention. Golkar has now fallen
to below the magic 20 percent of voters, according to the
Indonesian Survey Institute poll, and some party insiders worry
it could suffer a massive embarrassment on April 9, a fear that
has Kalla increasingly isolated inside the party.

Megawati's PDI-P has fallen to 17.3 percent, according to the
poll. The Islamic parties may have the lowest aggregate total
since Suharto fell, if the polls are close to accurate.
Religious parties got nearly 45 percent of the vote in
Indonesia's first elections in 1955, but they have slowly tailed
off, falling to 38 percent in 2004. Although at one point it was
expected that the country's four Islamic parties would get as
little as 17 to 23 percent of the votes, that figure has been
rising in recent days.

The best hope for moderates, say many observers, is for
Yudhoyono's party to get a clear win on April 9.

"The legislative elections will lead to a less fragmented
government for the 2009-2014 term because parties must have 20
percent of the seats or a coalition of 25 percent of the votes
cast to nominate a presidential candidate," said a knowledgeable
western political observer. "That means there will be far fewer
candidates, and a big party like the Democratic Party can likely
get that 20 percent on its own, thus it won't have to going into
a coalition with Golkar or anyone else. He can run with a
technocrat vice presidential candidate or senior Democratic
Party official, and if or when he wins, he doesn't have to hand
out any cabinet posts as a payback for the coalition."

Part of Yudhoyono's success has to be laid to attempts, not
always successful, to clean out corruption. The country's
Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK, has jailed or
indicted at least nine members of the House of Representatives,
as well as a number of other senior government officials and
businessmen. The arrested include members of Golkar, the
Democratic Party, PDI-P and others. The house remains one of the
most corrupt institutions in a country tied with eight other
countries for 126th place in Transparency International's 2008
corruption index of 180 countries.

The economy, which was flattened by the Asian Financial Crisis
of 1997-1998, and hammered by the Bali bombings and the Asian
tsunami of 2004, which claimed an estimated 170,000 lives in
Indonesia alone, is still in positive territory despite the
current global crisis. Partly because its domestic economy
largely shields it from export slumps, Indonesia, along with the
Philippines, is expected to chug along at 4.0 percent gross
domestic product growth this year, while Singapore's GDP is
expected to sink by nearly 5 percent. Thailand, at least partly
due to political turmoil, could shrink by as much as 1.5
percent, and Malaysia's export-dependent economy is expected to
contract by at least 1.2 percent or more. That gives Indonesians
a certain sense of security. The malls remain packed; tourism is
set for a moderate increase.

Against Yudhoyono, Megawati, a listless campaigner and a
lackluster former president but one whose father's name –
Sukarno, the founder of the country – still inspires affection,
remains the front runner. Others include Prabowo, the former
head of the Army Strategic Reserve unit Kostrad and a one-time
Suharto son-in-law. Prabowo was dismissed from Kostrad for
mobilizing troops around Jakarta without orders following
Suharto's resignation, prompting speculation he was
orchestrating a coup. He's also been implicated in the
kidnappings and torture of student activists prior to Suharto's
fall, and of instigating anti-Chinese riots in 1998, charges he
denies. He was never convicted of anything, however, and his
well-funded Gerindra party is blanketing the country with
newspaper and television advertising. Jusuf Kalla, the Golkar
head, is making a nominal run for the top job, but he is given
little chance because he is an ethnic Buginese from South
Sulawesi in a political scene dominated by Javanese.

Is there a wild card? If the Democratic Party falls short, the
fear that it will sell its soul to the Islamist Prosperous
Justice Party, or PKS, is real. The PKS has built its support on
attempts to bring Islamic purity to Indonesia's pluralistic
society and vows to clean up corruption.

In 2004, the party endorsed Yudhoyono for the presidency and has
largely run rings around the other Islamic parties with a
mixture of savvy public relations and connections to the
Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood. It was considered to be the
driving force behind the anti-pornography bill that Yudhoyono
signed. Secularists worry that despite its relatively small
size, it will end up as a kingmaker and the price of its support
will be hegemony over the social agencies that supposedly govern
public morals. But relatively few Indonesians, even among the 90
percent of the country that is at least nominally Muslim, want
the hard-line Imams to tell them what to do. It remains to be
seen what damage they might do.

It's a long shot and moderates of all stripes say it is unlikely.
Asia Sentinel
March 26, 2009

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