Sunday, July 12, 2009

Indonesia Rising

AUSTRALIA needs a prosperous, democratic Indonesia as a neighbour. On both counts, the return to office for a second five-year term of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is welcome. Exit polls suggest he won two-thirds of the vote. This reward for deft economic management and moderate politics averted the need for a run-off, giving him a single-poll landslide.

After the terrorist bombings in Bali in 2002 many in the West feared that Indonesians would respond to the call of militant Islam. Instead, citizens of the world's most populous Muslim country have rejected this option en masse. Dr Yudhoyono is a careful man who builds coalitions and eschews the trappings of a demagogue. His anti-corruption drive and measures to protect the poor from inflation have won him widespread popularity.

Now voters have dared him to push ahead more boldly to reduce entrenched bureaucratic obstacles to more rapid development. He knows that Indonesia's gigantic economic potential is constrained by an inadequate power grid, ports and roads, and has pledged to double infrastructure spending. He must also address the rupiah's status as Asia's most volatile currency, which could create instability if it is poorly managed.

Get these priority areas of policy right, and not only will growth follow, but also a more prominent role on the world stage. Jakarta can look forward to the full support of both Canberra and the United States, whose President, Barack Obama, spent part of his childhood in Indonesia.

Dr Yudhoyono has set himself the ambitious goal of matching China's rate of economic growth. That is one target he is likely to miss, but he is perhaps right to aim high. After decades of dictatorship under Soeharto, the authors of Indonesia's democratic constitution decided to limit presidents to a maximum of two terms. Dr Yudhoyono's race now is against the clock. More than 30 million Indonesians live on less than a dollar a day. The freedoms that made this election possible will be threatened if the victor fails to deliver rising living standards. The Islamists, who campaigned hard in support of women covering their heads, and those nostalgic for the certitudes of military rule, pray for just such an outcome. But the country's future is in wiser hands. The inherent tolerance and diversity of its people and pragmatic leadership of the kind offered by Dr Yudhoyono provide real hope of a better future for more than 200 million people.

The Sydney Morning Herald
Monday, July 13, 2009

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