HIGH HOPES FOR INDONESIA’S NEW PRESIDENT

Commentary

By Richard W. Baker

HONOLULU (Pacific Islands Report, Oct. 15) - On Oct. 20, Indonesia will inaugurate a new president, retired general and former security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The inauguration of Indonesia's sixth president, the fourth in the last 6 1/2 years, caps a remarkable process that involved three nationwide elections over the past six months - including Indonesia's first and the world's largest direct presidential election.

This process has given the country new national, provincial and local legislatures in addition to a new national leader.

Although it is too soon to say that the Susilo government will be able to surmount the many challenges facing the country, the election process itself constituted a significant step in consolidating the democratic transition in the world's fourth most populous nation, which also has the largest Muslim population of any country.

"SBY" soundly defeated incumbent president Megawati Sukarnoputri in a runoff election on Sept. 20, ratified by the constitutional court on Oct. 7. Susilo and his running mate Jusuf Kalla (also a former minister) won 69.2 million or 61 percent out of a total of 114 million valid votes, compared to Megawati and partner Hasyim Muzadi's 44.9 million or 39 percent. This is an overwhelming margin of victory, which provides Susilo with a clear mandate for his program of responsible change.

Other aspects of the 2004 elections were also promising. The process itself was remarkably orderly and smooth, despite some technical glitches particularly in the first round of presidential voting on July 5. There is widespread satisfaction and pride in Indonesia over the success of the elections, a healthy morale boost for a nation that has faced many traumas over the six years since the downfall of longtime strongman Suharto in May 1998.

Further, the voters' choice of leaders trumped the power of political organization (the two parties with the most extensive national networks both supported Megawati), money and incumbency - the combination of which also worked in Megawati's favor. Thus there is no doubt that the election outcome accurately reflected the popular will.

Also noteworthy, at a time of concern over Islamist extremism and terrorism (underlined by the Sept. 9 bombing at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta), was the nearly total domination of the vote by secular nationalist and moderate Muslim parties and leaders. Eighty-five percent of Indonesia's population is Muslim, but in the first presidential vote, among five competing slates, 80 percent of the electorate voted for secular nationalist figures teamed with moderate Islamic running mates. The Muslim candidate who had openly courted radicals, sitting Vice President Hamzah Haz, gained a miniscule 3 percent of the vote. These numbers provide convincing - and reassuring - evidence that extremism and terrorism do not have serious political traction in Indonesia.

Finally, the election result may lead to improvements in Indonesia's legislative process. Although the parliament (DPR) still features multiple parties (16 are represented, of which seven hold at least 8 percent of the seats), Susilo has moved quickly to put together a majority coalition and, for the first time, it appears that there will also be an organized opposition coalition. Further, a large number of DPR members are new - up to 70 percent according to some reports -- bringing promise of greater energy and seriousness. Finally, a directly elected upper house has replaced the former polyglot arrangement involving regional delegates and appointed members from the military and other societal groups.

Of course, the devil is always in the details, and the fulfillment of the potential for progress under the new leadership and legislature is far from assured. Vested interests are still heavily embedded in the system, and as throughout the post-Suharto period, once the public spotlight is off, these forces will work stealthily to influence the legislative and government processes in ways that favor them. The cohesiveness of SBY's nascent parliamentary coalition is uncertain, and the selection of his cabinet (already delayed from the original Oct. 5 target) may be affected by the need to allocate seats to representatives of coalition parties.

But the most immediate challenges facing Susilo and his team are expectations and priorities. Expectations are probably unrealistically high -- for example there has been much talk in the Indonesian media of a dramatic "first 100 days" reminiscent of FDR or JFK in the United States. There has also been some questioning of Susilo's decisiveness as a leader. The critical point will be for SBY to set out clear priority areas and timelines for addressing problems in government performance and economic policy. Key issues include curbing corruption, stimulating the economy and dealing with unaffordable but politically loaded subsidies. If Susilo can take early effective actions, this would both cement his popular support and boost his political clout in the DPR, making the next steps easier to accomplish.

Regardless of the hurdles still ahead, with the 2004 elections the Indonesian system has taken another significant incremental step forward. And, as has been the case at other key moments in the post-Suharto era, this latest movement toward reform and democratization was the result of direct involvement of the Indonesian public in the political process.

October 20, 2004

Richard E. Baker, Special Assistant to the President at the East-West Center in Honolulu, is a specialist in foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region

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