Indonesia: An Unlikely Success? – ISN

Indonesia could become a beacon for those who believe in Muslim democracies, but as the incumbent seems set to win elections, an economic downturn could provide a sting in the tail.

By Simon Roughneen in Dili for ISN Security Watch

As Indonesia reeled from the Asian financial crisis in 1998-1999 riots, insurrection and deadly communal fighting thundered across the land. Ethnic Chinese were massacred in pogroms in Jakarta, while religious, regional and ethnic violence reared in Aceh, Sulawesi and East Timor, with the latter seceding from Jakarta’s rule.

Various assandras predicted a Balkan future for the giant archipelago, suggesting it was set to splinter into ivarious regions. With 17,000 islands stretched across a distance equal to that between western France and Iran, and without any history of political unity prior to Dutch-driven centralization in the late 19th century, such doom-laden predictions had some traction, it seemed.

It would have taken some counter-intuitive logic to foresee a stable or united Indonesia 10 years ago. However, as things stand after the April 2009 parliamentary elections, Indonesia’s decade of democracy looks to have been a success, in absolute terms and relative to neighbors such as Thailand. As the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, and the third largest democracy anywhere, Indonesia could become a beacon for optimists who predict that democracy can take root in predominantly Muslim countries.

Getting used to democracy

Adrian Vickers, professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Sydney, told ISN Security Watch that for the most part, “the elections went off without a hitch, and more importantly (except for Aceh and Papua), without violence, so people are getting more used to the processes of democracy.”

Running an election across such as vast and variegated country is not easy, and some claims of irregularities have emerged. However, in the main, the system seems to be working and at the macro-level, is helping maintain a stable Indonesia.

Sunny Tanuwidjaja is an Indonesia analyst at Jakarta’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies. He described some of the democratic teething problems in Southeast Asia’s largest country to ISN Security Watch:

“We have a lot of homework to do on issues such as religious freedom/pluralism, weak accountability mechanism between voters and the elected leaders, and lastly the technical aspects of the election have been badly managed by the General Election Commission.”

However, the overall assessment is that democracy seems to be working, and at the macro-level, is helping maintain a stable Indonesia.

Early but apparently conclusive exit polls from Indonesia’s parliamentary election suggest current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) is on course to retain power. However, whatever mandate he retains enabling him to maintain his reform project remains undecided, and will be dependent on whatever coalition partners he aligns with, and whoever steps up to be his running mate in July’s presidential vote.

His Democratic Party is slated to take around 20 percent of the votes – almost tripling its 2004 haul – with main rivals led by Jusuf Kalla and Yudhoyono’s predecessor Megawati Sukarnoputri both set to lose votes and seats in the 560-strong legislature.

Kalla’s Golkar could shed around 30 seats  while Megawati’s Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) may end up losing less heavily, but looks set to hover around the 14 percent mark, similar to Golkar’s result.

More pointedly, the overall vote for Islamic or Islamist parties has also dropped – from 38 percent in 2004 to about 28 percent this time around. This suggests that the government’s robust counter-terrorist strategy, as well as clumsy affectations of assertiveness by some Islamist groups, have combined to offset the appeal of Indonesia’s firebrands.

Still, a cluster of Islamic parties are positioning to join the emerging Indonesian governing coalition for the next five years. At the top of the queue is the Islamic Justice Party, or PKS, which increased its vote, albeit only slightly, this time around. PKS has been the most prominent sharia-promoting group in the past five years, leading calls for an “anti-pornography” law, which many of Indonesia’s non-Muslims viewed as unacceptable. The PKS governor in West Java arguably damaged his party by banning the performance of a popular folk dance called jaipongan, using a similar pretext.

Much of the international attention prior to the elections focused on the perceived strength or otherwise of Islamist parties in the wake of the execution of three of the Bali bombers in late 2008, and coming off the back of increased stridency by PKS, among others. But as Adrian Vickers put it, “Indonesia is not going to turn into Saudi Arabia anytime soon.”


The next few weeks will see all the deal-making and horse-trading that inevitably goes with such an electoral system. Citi Indonesia published a post-election research paper outlining some its views:

“A PD-Golkar coalition could lead to a slower pace of reform, although implementation of more market friendly policies is expected. On the other hand, a tie up between PD and other Islamic parties (such as PKS) would allow [Yudhoyono] more liberty to fight graft and cut bureaucracy, but could lead to more sharia style policies, marginalizing secular supporters and religious minorities.”

Then comes July’s election for the powerful presidency. Candidates must be nominated by parties or coalitions that won more than 20 percent of the seats or 25 percent of the popular vote in the parliamentary election. This means that there could be as many as four tickets (the president and vice president run together).

Yudhoyono is in pole position. An exit poll of 7,500 voters gave him 42 percent support, with Megawati at 13.4 percent, Prabowo at 5.7 percent and the rest even less. In another poll held back in February, Yudhoyono scored 64 percent to Sukarnoputri’s 23 percent in a head-to-head race – and Megawati is still regarded as the most likely challenger to the apparently unassailable incumbent. However, she will likely ally with one or both parties headed by controversial ex-military/security Suharto apparatchiks – despite her historic self-image as an opponent of Suharto and the type of oppressive rule he personified.

Yudhoyono has a dilemma of his own. Should he ally with Golkar he will perhaps revive a dying party, but one which could facilitate a continuation of the policies that have served him well so far, or at least ensured his success at the polls this time around. However, if he allies with PKS, he would give legitimacy and leverage to a sharia-based group, whose long-term intentions and motives remain unclear at best.

A new pragmatism

What was notable about the elections was, PKS aside, a disdain for ideology, with people voting on personality and a pragmatic sense of “who best will help me.”

Yudhoyono’s populism has stood him well, although his policies have not contributed to overcoming unemployment or eradicating poverty. His anti-corruption drive has been popular, and as his project to give almost 20 million poor families 100,000 rupiah (around €7) a month as compensation for rising fuel prices.

While he is way out in front for now, it remains to be seen how well his government is prepared for a real downturn in the Indonesian economy, which some analysts predict to hit hard come June or July.

Now exports are down 36 percent in January year on year, with expected GDP growth to slow to about 3 percent from 6.1 percent in 2008. The rupiah has weakened, but the government has acted sharply, and China has weighed in with credit.
The last time Indonesia’s economy went under, food prices soared, the rupiah went into freefall and riots led to the ouster of one of the world’s most durable dictators. That was in 1998. While a similar economic collapse is not envisaged this time around, the precedent is there. Indonesians do make political choices based on economic circumstance.

Sunny Tanuwidjaja pointed out to ISN Security Watch that Indonesians might have a “problem with creating potential future leaders, given the fact that SBY is almost unchallenged.” Given the legacy of Suharto’s “New Order” tyranny, it might be a good thing if SBY is not home and dry just yet.

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