Sunday, May 01, 2005

Challenging road to democracy in Indonesia

The Business Times
July 28, 2004

But democracy cannot be an end in itself and must be accompanied by economic progress to be successful, meaningful and sustainable.

By Thang D. Nguyen

On July 5, about 153 million Indonesian voters went to the polls to elect their next president. To most observers, this event might seem just one of the many elections that take place this year in Asia and other parts of the world. But for Indonesians, it has been a highly significant event, one of the milestones in the country's modern history.

Not only was this election a time for Indonesians to select a leader to guide them through their future, it was also an opportunity for them to show the world that democracy can and does work in Indonesia, which is the world's fourth most populous nation and home to the largest Muslim community.

For Indonesia - the world's largest archipelago - managing this event in terms of sheer logistics has been no easy task. Besides the size factor, security has also posed a daunting challenge.

But Indonesia had done it well, and did it again on July 5. Remarkably, there has been virtually no violence from the time the campaign started in March till the legislative level elections in April and election day itself, when millions of Indonesians turned out to vote.

The turnouts for Indonesian elections have been consistently high. In the 1999 election, according to the Stockholm-based Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Indonesia's voter turnout rate came in at 85.7 percent. And the turnout rate on July 5 was 80 percent.

But this election is also important because it is the first direct presidential election in the history of Indonesia. In the past, the president was elected indirectly, by votes from members of the People's Consultative Assembly (or MPR). Under a constitutional reform that the MPR approved in August 2002, the president will now be elected directly by the Indonesian voters.

All of these facts indicate that democracy is growing in Indonesia. Amid raging global debates on whether Islam and democracy are compatible, the prospects for Indonesia's democratic success are most encouraging.

'What is happening in Indonesia,' said European Commissioner for External Relations Christopher Patten in a recent visit to Jakarta, shows that 'democracy and Islam can co-exist, and the rest of (the world) should be supporting it'.

Indonesia's democratic journey is not easy, however. The Indonesians must realise that the election is the journey, and the destination is not just democracy per se, but also prosperity. In other words, for democracy to be successful, meaningful and sustainable, it must be translated into jobs and wealth creation that benefits the vast majority of Indonesians. This means the economy must be the No 1 priority for the next leader of Indonesia and his or her administration.

The economy is projected to grow at 4.8 percent in 2004. Nevertheless, to provide jobs for Indonesia's 220 million population, which is fast growing, it would take a GDP growth rate of between 7-9 percent, which was the average rate at which the economy grew for roughly two decades before it was engulfed by the Asian financial crisis of 1997.

What will it take for Indonesia to achieve a high growth rate? The answer lies, basically, in competitiveness. A country's economic competitiveness is measured by a number of factors, such as its political stability; government policy and treatment of foreign investors; physical infrastructure; the quality and level of its public education, the productivity and skill level of its labour force; transparency; and legal consistency.

When it comes to Indonesia's competitiveness, while there has been progress, there remain many challenges. Measured by macroeconomic indicators, Indonesia is doing well. In fact, the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2003-2004 says that Indonesia's macroeconomic environment score is the 5th most improved. Nevertheless, rampant corruption, the lack of an attractive investment climate, and legal inconsistency remain the biggest challenges. The next government will have to deal with these issues head-on.

For Indonesia to make economic progress, the quality of leadership is of key importance. The Indonesian electorate, which is actually more sophisticated than some critics think, are well aware of this. When a June survey by the International Foundation for Election Systems asked Indonesians what is their most important consideration when voting for their president, leadership ability scored a high 45 percent, far ahead of other criteria, such as religion, which scored only 4 percent.

The results of the July 5 election released on Monday by the National Elections Commission (KPU) show that retired general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is the leading candidate. According to the KPU, Mr Bambang has 33.6 percent of the votes, followed by incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri with 26.6 percent and Wiranto, another former general, with 22.2 percent.

Since it requires a candidate to have more than 50 percent of the votes on July 5 to win the election, these early results confirm that Mr Bambang, or 'SBY' as Indonesians call him, and President Megawati will face each other in a final run-off scheduled for Sept 20.While Indonesians and friends of Indonesia from around the world look forward to the September run-off and its result, the key point that nobody should miss is that democracy is beginning to flourish in Indonesia.

Speaking of the July 5 election, former US president Jimmy Carter, who was one of the international observers, said that Indonesia had made a 'wonderful transition from authoritarian rule to pure democratic rule'.

The American writer Mark Twain once quipped: 'Wagner's music is better than it sounds.' Democracy in Indonesia, it has been said, is like Wagner's music: the world just has to listen to it attentively.

The writer, a former regional manager for Asia at the World Economic Forum, is currently a Jakarta-based political analyst. He is also the author of the forthcoming book, 'The Indonesian Dream: Diversity, Unity, and Democracy in Times of Distrust' (Marshall Cavendish Academic, September 2004).


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