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

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Indonesians reject race and religious politics Duncan Graham

Next week the Indonesian presidential election results will be officially announced. Counts so far show the present incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will be back in power for a further five years with a whacking 62 per cent of the popular vote.

His main rival in the three-way tussle was Megawati Soekarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s charismatic first president and so-called father of the nation. So far her score is 29 per cent. Jusuf Kalla, the vice president for the past five years, has mustered under 10 per cent despite having the backing of Golkar, the most powerful party in the country.

This is good news for the West that’s long feared the republic would suffer Balkanisation, fragmenting into warring groups fighting over sectarian issues and creating turmoil in South East Asia.

Indonesia is an archipelago nation straddling the Equator, a heady mix of about 300 ethnic groups dominated by the Javanese. It’s the fourth largest nation in the world with about 240 million people.

SBY, as he’s widely known, seems to have been re-elected because he’s stabilised the economy, tackled corruption and combated terrorism in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

Up-beat commentators in Indonesia claim his win marks the end of politics based on race, faith and ethnicity as voters in the direct presidential election plumped for secular pragmatism.

Cynics, noting a drop in the number of electors bothering to vote, claimed SBY won not on his merits but because his rivals were long on slogans and short on policies. Either way it seems democracy is taking root

SBY is a US-educated former army general with a PhD in agricultural economics. Despite his military background his first term was marked by indecisiveness, though he was hampered by having to work with a coalition.

Indonesian scholar Professor Jeffrey Winters from Chicago’s Northwestern University said the lack of violence in the transition to democracy was “no small achievement.”

In adjacent Philippines, a country with a far longer democratic record, between 80 and 100 candidates get assassinated every election.

“The number one election issue was poverty and economic performance,” said Winters, in Wellington last week to address the Institute of International Affairs at Victoria University,

“Issues of human rights were not in the forefront of the debate. People are tired of the old politics known as KKN – Korupsi, Kolusi and Nepotisme – no translation required.

“It seems that the power of the generals left over from the Soeharto period has peaked.”

Indonesia only returned to democracy in the past decade after 32 years of military rule under General Soeharto.

Winters said the election campaign was lacklustre and the electorate apathetic with up to 30 per cent no longer participating in the political process.

Some tried to play the religious card claiming the wives of SBY and his running mate, Australian-trained economist Boediono, were not proper Muslims because they don’t wear headscarves.

Smear campaigns were run against ‘neo-liberals’. “Few defined the term though it generally meant being too reliant on foreign investments, not being sufficiently nationalistic and getting a bad shake internationally,” Winters said

Voters rejected candidates running on religious issues. However the rapidly expanding PKS (Prosperous Justice Party), which won almost nine per cent of the parliamentary vote on an anti-corruption, more piety ticket, is alleged to have another agenda.

The PKS has been linked to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the fundamentalist Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia, and is alleged to be working in a sophisticated way to slowly impose Islamic Sharia law on Indonesia. The party’s development is concerning moderate Muslims and the ten per cent of the population registered as followers of other faiths, mainly Christian.

As in the US, presidents are restricted to two terms. The next test for Indonesian democracy will come when SBY has to quit politics in 2014. He’ll then be 65.

“There’s already talk in Jakarta that he might want to hold onto power by trying to amend the constitution or getting his wife Ani to stand for office,” said Winters.

“The problems of succession remain.”

(First published in Scoop 15 July)



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