Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Indonesia votes Today

Democracy Takes Hold in Indonesia, but How Strong Are Its Roots?

A LITTLE MORE than a decade after the downfall of Suharto's autocratic, military-backed regime, Indonesia has become the most robust democracy in Southeast Asia. In terms of population, Indonesia is now the world's third-largest democracy, after India and the United States.

In just one decade, Indonesia has transformed itself from a dictatorship dominated by capitalist conglomerates and judicial injustice to a vibrant, people-oriented democracy with a relatively independent judiciary.

In April's parliamentary election, 38 parties - generally classified as being either secular or Islamic - contested, but only nine of them won seats. Today, more than 176 million Indonesian eligible voters will go to the polls in only the second direct presidential election in Indonesian history. A runoff is scheduled in September if no candidate wins a majority in the first round.

The candidates - favoured incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, founding president Sukarno's daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri, and current Vice President Jusuf Kalla - all describe themselves as secular nationalists and avoid flirting with the Islamist agenda.

In the lead-up to April's parliamentary election there were reports of fraudulent voter lists and confusion over how to punch ballots. Many feared the disputes would threaten the country's stability - fears rooted in memories of the political chaos and violence that followed Suharto's downfall in 1998. Election Day, however, passed peacefully, with few exceptions. The polls consolidated the country's democratic system. The peaceful election campaign was seen as a sign of maturity given the economic chaos, the rise of Islamist militancy and social unrest that characterised the early days of post-Suharto democracy.

Indonesia, which is home to the world's largest Muslim population, has emerged as a living rebuttal to the notion that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Since taking office in 2004, President Yudhoyono, known in Indonesia by his initials SBY, has won praise for his pro-business and pro-West policies, while forcefully fighting terrorism and corruption. But the democratic reforms have also provided fertile ground for the rise of Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI - an Islamic fundamentalist group linked to the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation - which has been blamed for a series of bomb attacks in the country between 2000 and 2005 that killed hundreds.

Under Suharto's 32 years of iron-fisted but secular policies, militant Islamic groups were forced to operate underground. A decade ago Indonesia was the sick man of Asia. In 1998 its economy had collapsed, with GDP falling a massive 13 per cent. Its banking system was in disarray and a series of weak presidents struggled to cope with the aftermath of the financial crisis that had toppled Suharto.
Although many believe Indonesia's democracy has been consolidated, key human rights questions remain, particularly those linked to the situation in the restive eastern province of Papua, where ongoing human rights abuses have been recorded. Amnesty International recorded recently that "torture, excessive use of force and unlawful killings by police and security forces continued" in Papua, with no progress made in bringing the perpetrators of past gross human rights violations to justice.

The prominence of ex-military men in the upcoming election is evidence that the old elites remain powerful in Indonesia 10 years after the fall of Suharto's military-led government. The country still lacks structured institutions strong enough to manage differing and often clashing interests.

Democracy in Indonesia has been improved since the downfall of Suharto. But there are still many holes in the implementation of real democracy. All of the presidential candidates came from the Suharto era. Democracy in Indonesia appears only on the surface. It is hard to say democracy is robust.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

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