The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Indonesia’s Mr Try-Hard gets voters’ nod Duncan Graham

Out of the chaos of Indonesian politics has come forth clarity. More than half the voters in the world’s most populous Muslim nation prefer moderate secular parties rather than those sheltering under the crescent of Islam.

On the surface this looks like good news for the West, particularly Australia which has long had an edgy relationship with its northern neighbour. (See Scoop 22 April 2009) About 240 million people are squashed into the archipelago that straddles the equator. More than 40 million live below the poverty line, earning less than $US 2 a day.

The election results are also warming for New Zealand. Indonesia remains our biggest market in South-East Asia. Our exports are worth about $NZ I billion and growing fast, so the stability of our big customer is of great importance. A free trade agreement between the nations was signed in February.

The just released official results of the 9 April election have closely followed informal exit polls. They’ve shown the Democratic Party of the incumbent president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (widely known as SBY) ahead of all 38 parties seeking power, winning 21.04 per cent of the vote.

Second was the Democratic Party of Struggle led by the former president Megawati Soekarnoputri with 14.52 per cent, a whisker ahead of Golkar mustering 14.23 per cent.

Golkar is the political vehicle designed and driven by the late president Soeharto to hold absolute power for 32 years. More recently it’s been steered by the vice-president Jusuf Kalla.

Fourth with 8.16 per cent was the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) that has kept its Islamic credentials in the background while campaigning hard against corruption. This has caused a frisson of fear among those who suspect the party has another agenda.

In New Zealand most Indonesian voters backed SBY.

Clearly with these results a coalition will have to run the 560-seat Parliament, known as the DPR. How that’s going to be engineered is the critical question, though this time round SBY can bargain from a position of strength.

Under the Indonesian system the people directly elect the president and vice president for a five-year term. In the 2004 election the Democratic Party was a tiny player with less than eight per cent of the vote. But the electorate wanted SBY, not his principal rival Megawati, by a margin of three to two.

Optimists say all this shows Indonesians have embraced democracy and are making it work. Those who don’t use rose-coloured glasses note only 61 per cent of the nation’s 171 million eligible electors bothered to vote and millions were disenfranchised through registration stuff-ups.

Critics of SBY’s administration during the past five years often overlook the huge problems he faced and give insufficient weight to his skills in keeping the political system intact and the economy on course.

For a Kiwi comparison, imagine Jeanette Fitzsimons being elected PM by popular vote while the Greens bump along the bottom in Parliament.

In 2004 SBY campaigned for the nation’s top job with businessman Jusuf Kalla, thereby binding Golkar into the government. SBY still hasn’t chosen his running mate for this year’s election. Golkar gave SBY the numbers on the floor of Parliament, but the compromises required eroded much of his authority.

Unless SBY picks a mightily unpopular running mate, or someone considered corrupt, the man with a public approval rating of 70 per cent looks set in the job. Megawati will challenge but she’s a lacklustre candidate famous for being aloof and believing she deserves the job just because her dad was the country’s first president.

Westerners dealing with Indonesia have been barracking for SBY, not because he’s been an outstanding leader but because the alternatives look so scary.

During the authoritarian and corrupt rule of General Soeharto that ended in 1998 with the Asian economic crisis, the military ran the country and just about everything else. The army had seats in Parliament, controlled many businesses, had a major internal security role, oversaw the police and were considered untouchable.

Although the army’s influence is no longer so blatant it’s still a major force behind the scenes. Boosters for SBY highlight his academic qualifications (he has a doctorate in agriculture), his urbanity and English skills learned while studying in the US, and his middle ground, ultra-cautious politics. He appears to genuinely believe in democracy and has gravitas on the international stage.

Supporters play down the fact that he was a four-star general before entering politics and comes from a military family. His father, father-in-law and one son are, or were, soldiers.

Two former generals with questionable human-rights records were major party candidates in this year’s election and Megawati is largely regarded as a tool of the military.

SBY has been unable to stop the imposition of some aspects of Islamic Sharia law in the provinces. These include forcing female bureaucrats and students to wear headscarves, banning alcohol, enforcing prayers and setting up community patrols to sniff out sexual naughtiness, though the Constitution appears to prohibit such local initiatives.

By contrast, and after decades of oppression, the media in Indonesia is now the freest in South-East Asia, robustly pushing the old barriers on a wide range of social and political issues.

Despite doomsayers claiming Indonesia would become another Pakistan as fundamentalism flourished, that hasn’t happened. The battle against terrorism, with significant help from the Australian Federal Police, has notched up many wins against the bombers.

SBY’s push against corruption has had limited success; pulling out the wallet remains the standard way to bypass stalling bureaucrats at all levels. The arrest this month of the Corruption Commission boss Antasari Azhar on charges of being involved in the murder of a businessman has crippled the clean-up campaign.

The judiciary is still a mess, continuing to use colonial Dutch law from early last century, and the over-staffed public service a dinosaur sturdily resisting extinction. Outsiders trying to do business need to tread warily.

The economy has slumped, though not as much as expected and less than other Asian nations. Poverty and poor quality education remain major concerns, although there have been patchwork successes in improving the lives of those on Struggle Street.

The consensus, both inside and outside the Republic seems to be that Mr Try-Hard has made a reasonable fist of handling one of the world’s toughest tasks – and given the line-up against him is clearly the best bloke around.

There are two standout dangers: If he wants to divorce Golkar and get a workable majority in the Parliament, SBY may be forced to cohabit with the PKS and other minor Islamic parties. This could let the extremist tail wag the reformist dog.

The other concern is that the opposition parties frustrated at their inability to find candidates with popular appeal may combine to spoil SBY’s legislative program out of spite. Success here seems less likely; though the emotion is real they’ll find it hard to bury differences because so many are single-issue or policy-free parties.

The election for the president will be held on 8 July, with a run off on 8 September if no candidate gets above 50 per cent of the vote.

* (First published in Tuesday 11 May)