Sunday, May 01, 2005

Indonesian polls show democracy a heady brew


The Straits Times
Friday, August 20, 2004

By Thang D. Nguyen

JAKARTA - As Indonesia celebrates its 59th anniversary of independence this week, it is appropriate to reflect on the democratic progress it has achieved thus far.

Considering how young democracy is in Indonesia since the end of the Suharto era and how long it has taken others to build a democratic nation, the presidential election this year is certainly an exemplary one.

On July 5, roughly 153 million Indonesians turned out to select their next national leader in the first direct presidential election in the history of the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

The Indonesian electorate has shown an appreciation of voting, a democratic right that is often forbidden or taken for granted elsewhere in the world.

In dictatorships or non-democratic regimes, voting does not exist. In other societies, voters may vote, but their mandates are not accepted by the ruling regimes.

This is certainly the case of Myanmar, where voting was granted about a decade ago, but its people's overwhelming choice of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was never acknowledged. What is more, the junta leadership has yet to release her from house arrest, despite many calls from the international community.

It is often forgotten that voting is a luxury not all citizens can afford.

In other words, voting or political activities, such as participating in election campaigns, takes time, energy and resources the poor do not have.

When a voter's main concern is to put food on the table, for himself or his family, voting is arguably the last thing on his mind.

As much as he may want to join election campaigns to support his preferred presidential candidate and vote, economic conditions simply don't allow him to and, therefore, he is not necessarily considered politically indifferent.

Political indifference, on the other hand, is a phenomenon in which an individual's economic conditions allow him to vote, but he decides not to.

It is either because he is too occupied with other pursuits in life or simply not interested in politics, based on his belief that it does not, or will not, make his life any better.

This phenomenon happens in some First World countries in which most citizens enjoy high standards of living.

For instance, the United States, which considers itself the democratic beacon of the world, has a relatively low voter turnout. In the 2000 presidential election, the US voter turnout rate was just 51 per cent. Interestingly enough, this was a period during which the US economy was doing well.

For Indonesia, where 40 per cent of its 220 million people are unemployed or underemployed, its democratic progress, as seen in its steady voter turnout rate, is indeed remarkable and encouraging.

Furthermore, this year's election has shown the Indonesian electorate to be mature - if not sophisticated. For the first time in the nation's history, voters seemed to pay more attention to issues.

In Indonesia - like most other South-east Asian countries - political culture is, for the most part, personality-based and traditional authority-oriented.

In other words, apart from money politics, voters are influenced by a candidate's charisma and advice from tribal heads or religious leaders when making their electoral decisions.

When asked if they would base their voting rationale on a candidate's personality or his policy, a June survey conducted by the International Foundation for Election Systems showed 43 per cent of those polled said both factors matter equally.

Among issues of concern to most voters, corruption ranks the highest.

For this reason, Mr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired general who was the coordinating minister for political and security affairs until March, is the most popular candidate. The main reason is that he is perceived as someone who is still clean, or bersih in Indonesian.

As a candidate needs more than 50 per cent of the votes to win the election, the results of the July 5 election mean that retired general Bambang, or SBY as Indonesians call him, and incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri will face each other in a final run-off scheduled for Sept 20.

Meanwhile, it is also worth noting that 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.

What is most positive about the Indonesian elections is that they illustrate not only can democracy exist, but it can also flourish in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.
Amid raging global debates on whether Islam is compatible with democracy, Indonesia's democratic process is most encouraging.

However, while Indonesians look forward to next month's run-off and their next leadership, they need to be reminded that democracy is not an end in itself.

Rather, it is a means to prosperity, security and job creation.

This means if the newly elected government can't deliver the goods as promised during the election campaign, democracy will be meaningless, and the people will become disillusioned.

As for others around the world who are observing Indonesia's elections, they, too, need a reminder, which is: Be patient. Democracy is not instant coffee; and if you don't grow, brew and serve it right, you will get a nasty drink.

The writer, a former regional manager for Asia at the World Economic Forum, is a Jakarta-based columnist. His forthcoming book is The Indonesian Dream: Diversity, Unity and Democracy in Times of Distrust.

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