Indonesia’s dangerously dull election – ISN

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By all accounts, it has been one of the tamest election campaigns in Indonesia since the country democratized over a decade ago. On 8 July, voters will choose their president and vice-president for a five-year term, with incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono all but assured of victory, according to opinion polls.

One poll conducted by the Indonesian Survey Institute (Lembaga Survei Indonesia – LSI) found that even though the president’s popularity has declined somewhat in recent weeks, he remains far more popular than the two other candidates. The survey was conducted between 15-20 June and polled 2,000 people across 17 provinces. It found that 67.2 percent of respondents intended to vote for Yudhoyono, 15.8 percent for former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, 8.3 percent for Vice President Jusuf Kalla, and 8.7 percent undecided. In the LSI’s April survey, Yudhoyono obtained 75 percent, Megawati 16 percent and Kalla only 3 percent.

Weak competition has put paid to the prospect of a close race or contentious outcome. According to C Holland Roberts, CEO and Chairman of LibForALL , “both Golkar [Jusuf Kalla’s party] and PDI-P, [led by Sukarnoputri], are fronting presidential candidates that are difficult for the populace to get excited about.”

“The current campaign does evidence democratic stability, but also the absence of compelling candidates who can mobilize public confidence in change that will tangibly improve their lives,” he told ISN Security Watch.

Stable disappointment

The placid electoral campaign might disappoint political junkies, but given the prohibitive birth pangs for democracy in Indonesia, this outcome must be seen as evidence of longer-term success.

In 1998, Indonesia was on fire, as anti-regime protests in the wake of the devastating financial crisis led to the ouster of long-time ruler Suharto, whose corrupt and undemocratic rule had passed its sell-by date. A year later, Indonesian-occupied East Timor voted to secede , and it took until 2005 to implement peace in Aceh. Meanwhile, religious, regional and ethnic tensions elsewhere across the vast archipelago threatened to undermine the unity of the state.

This election, like the parliamentary vote that preceded it back in April, has been dominated by bread and butter issues. Indonesia was hit hard by the global economic crisis, especially in late 2008, but some of the side-effects from that have helped the oft-indecisive incumbent president to recover from a mid-2008 popularity slump. With oil prices down, he was able to lower fuel prices several times. He thus was able to appear to have personally intervened on behalf of ordinary Indonesians, and established a 100,000 rupiah/month (around $9.90) cash assistance program to soothe the impact of inflation for some 20 million poor people.

As Sunny Tanuwidjaja of Jakarta’s Center for Strategic and International Studies told ISN Security Watch, “Yudhoyono was able to campaign on impact. The others could just make promises.” Their pledges seem to mimic SBYs own policies, and this tacit vindication of the incumbent has contributed to making the election seem a no-contest to date.

However, whether or not this latest peaceful election means that Indonesia is irreversibly stable remains to be seen. Such progress could be reversed or undermined. “We have to be cautiously optimistic. During the 1990s, Thai democracy flourished, but is now in turmoil,” Tanuwidjaja said.

Political Islam tamed

Political Islam has many manifestations in Indonesia. Nationwide organizations such as Nadlatul Ulama (NU) and the Muhammadiyah have over 70 million members between them, and sharia-oriented parties have made electoral inroads in recent years. However, the overall vote for Islamic or Islamist parties has also dropped – from 38 percent in 2004 to about 28 percent this time around. One exception was the Islamic Justice Party, or PKS, which increased its vote, albeit only slightly, last April. PKS has been the most prominent group in the past five years, leading calls for an “anti-pornography” law, which many of Indonesia’s non-Muslims viewed as unacceptable – with Bali’s Hindus taking umbrage in particular.

Extreme variants of political Islam do not seem to have any traction among voters, and the government’s robust counter-terrorist strategy, as well as clumsy affectations of assertiveness by some Islamist groups, has undermined the appeal of Indonesia’s firebrands. “Muslim voters today believe that their religious needs are sufficiently represented by the pluralist Muslim parties and by the nationalist parties such as the Democrat Party, Golkar, and, though to a lesser extent, PDI-P. Candidates today claim to stand for pro-Islamic but non-extremist views,” Bernhard Platzdasch, visiting research fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies told ISN Security Watch. Yudhoyono has cultivated a populist, personally pious image, and Islamist parties have backed him, doubtless expecting some reward in the coming administration. During his tenure, Yudhoyono was lax in confronting some 50 regencies that defied the Indonesian Constitution by implementing sharia, and failed to act decisively when Ahmadiyahs (deemed by some to be a heretical or non-Muslim sect) were attacked by FPI hardliners. Indonesia’s official ideology remains Pancasila , which gives equal status to five religions. According to Roberts, the mass participation NU and Muhamadiyah work hard at keeping tabs on extremist green shoots, or under-the-radar networking.

Lack of enthusiasm

None of the candidates evokes real popular enthusiasm, even though Yudhoyono’s economic outreach has proved popular. Politics is seen as something for the affluent and the connected, and the danger may be that, in an apathetic environment, democracy may be cast in the same elitist light. In 2008, various polls found residual respect among the general population for the New Order authoritarianism and economic stability, as imposed under Suharto before 1998, though some of this might have been sentimental, given that the former ruler died in early 2008.

Sukarnoputri is a former president herself, and daughter of General Sukarno, Indonesia’s first post-independence leader. Two of the New Order elite are now vice presidential candidates, and both have controversial histories. Sukarnoputri is running alongside Prabowo Subianto – a former son-in-law of Suharto who was “honorably” dismissed from the army in 1998 after his units admitted to kidnapping dissidents. Meanwhile, former General Wiranto is Kalla’s running mate, and he has been accused by the UN of masterminding human rights violations as the Indonesian Army and allied militias withdrew from East Timor in 1999.

Both are likely to see this year’s election as a trial run for a full presidential bid in 2014, when SBY will be unable to run for a third term. His PD party did well in the April parliamentary elections, up from 5 percent in 2004 to around 20 percent this time. But the party is built largely around his personality, rather than any belief or structure. When he steps down in 2014, it remains to be seen if the PD party can survive his departure, and this could give an opening to Wiranto, Subianto or the Islamist parties.

For now, it seems doubtful if any fresh faces can crack the upper tiers of the Indonesian political scene, and the country’s elite-driven politics could prove to alienate voters. This might not be destabilizing by itself, in the longer term, but it could give an opening to those in the elite who are dissatisfied with elections. As Tanuwidjaja told ISN Security Watch: “Indonesia is stable because there is no individual among the elite with the incentive or capability to foment instability.”

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