Democracy in South-East Asia
The Indonesian surprise
Apr 2nd 2009
From The Economist print edition
The world's biggest Muslim country has changed from authoritarian basket-case to regional role model
THE Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s helped bring regime change in both the country where it started, Thailand, and the one where the devastation it wrought was most profound, Indonesia. At the time Thailand's prospects for political stability seemed infinitely brighter. A cohesive nation whose army seemed to have withdrawn from politics, it adopted a new constitution, drafted in an impeccably consultative process. Indonesia, however, woke up in 1998 from the 32-year Suharto dictatorship with a dreadful hangover—blood on the streets of Jakarta, separatist conflicts on the periphery and a chaotic explosion of repressed political activity, some of it tinged with Islamist extremism.
Yet as Indonesia prepares for its third national parliamentary elections since then, to be held on April 9th, it has a fair claim to be South-East Asia's only fully functioning democracy. Unfettered by Thailand's draconian lèse-majesté laws, or the fierce interpretations of what constitutes defamation in Singapore and Malaysia, the press is vibrant and free. Unlike Thailand's army, which returned to politics with a coup in 2006, Indonesia's has stayed back in the barracks. And unlike the Philippines, where elections dominated by guns, goons and gold lead to dozens of murders, Indonesia has enjoyed a largely peaceful campaign. Indonesia's corruption rates probably still top regional charts, but the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made strides in attacking it.
Moreover, pluralist politics and a decentralisation of power have helped bring Islamist politics into the mainstream. Jemaah Islamiah, the local al-Qaeda franchisee, responsible for the bombing in Bali in 2002 and other attacks, has been marginalised: its most dangerous fanatics are in jail or hiding in the jungles of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. No attacks on foreign targets in Indonesia have been recorded since 2005. The above-ground Islamist parties have had to become less vehement to gain power. About two-fifths of local elections have been won by coalitions forged between Islamist and secular parties. In the two other huge Asian Muslim-majority nations—Pakistan and Bangladesh—extremism gained ground in the early years of this century in part because of the suppression of political competition.
Of course Indonesia is not a paragon of Jeffersonian democracy. The parties contesting the election (see article) are doing so largely on the basis of their leaders' charisma, and the quality of the packed lunches and other handouts they provide at their rallies. And those leaders are mostly people who thrived under Suharto, too, testifying not just to the elite's tenacious staying power, but also to the lack of any accountability for the abuses of the Suharto years. One is the former army chief, Wiranto, who was indicted by a United Nations-backed tribunal for his role in the violence that surrounded Indonesia's withdrawal from Timor-Leste in 1999. Another, Prabowo Subianto, is the divorced husband of one of Suharto's daughters, and a former special-forces commander whose human-rights record is such that he cannot get a visa to America.
In the short term, however, the biggest difficulty facing Indonesian democracy is the election itself. Despite the experience of the previous votes in 1999 and 2004 it was always going to face huge difficulties: a voting system of Byzantine complexity; constantly evolving rules; the logistics of organising polls in an archipelago of 17,000 islands and 240m people; and the apparent ineptitude of the election commission. A new one was added, however, with the exposure of the apparent rigging of a recent election for a provincial governorship, in East Java, in favour of Mr Yudhoyono's Democratic Party.
The scale of the errors uncovered—over a quarter of the names on the voters' list were fictitious or repeated—seems too large for it to be simply an instance of incompetence. But instead of helping the investigation, the police in Jakarta intervened to downgrade it and sideline the local police chief responsible. Since then errors have been detected in voters' lists elsewhere. This makes it even more likely that many losing candidates in the election will challenge the results. Indonesia's love affair with democracy could enter a rocky patch.
Pricking the pretext of "Asian values"
It should, however, be no more than that. The manipulation was uncovered, publicised and is being exploited by opposition candidates: the system worked. As governments elsewhere in the region retreat into repression, Indonesia can still be proud of its young but vibrant pluralism. Although Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad and Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew did most of the talking about the "Asian values" that justify authoritarianism, Suharto was their role model and proof. Indonesia is now an altogether different sort of model. Like India it has shown that democracy can work in huge, diverse and poor countries. And like Brazil, Taiwan and South Korea, it has shown it does not need generations to strike roots. ***