Asia Program

Events

A Billion Ballots for Democracy: Election Year in Indonesia

July 13, 2004 // 3:30pm5:30pm

To read essays by each of the speakers in PDF format, click here

The sheer size and complexity of Indonesia's elections indicate the challenge for the country's democratic transition. With 150 million eligible voters stretched across 14,000 islands and three time zones, more than half a million polling stations were required for both parliamentary elections (requiring four separate ballots) and the country's first-ever direct presidential election. And, since it looks as if no one presidential candidate won a majority, the voting is not yet over―there will be a September run-off, still too close to call, between the incumbent Megawati Soekarnoputri and recent political upstart Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The massive election undertaking involved some administrative glitches―-ballots accidentally punched twice, for example―-but overall the election was free, fair, safe, and relatively nonviolent, according to the panel. All the speakers hailed the success of the election process, but warned that governing Indonesia will prove less smooth a task for whichever candidate prevails.

Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, managing editor of the Jakarta Post, argued that the new president will find addressing Indonesia's economic problems difficult, since the parliament is fractious and divided. Susilo, especially, would find it hard to pass legislation, since his relatively new Democratic Party holds less than 8 percent of parliamentary seats. The danger is that democracy might lose its appeal, Meidyatama warned. The public will become increasingly impatient if democracy is unable to maintain growth as high as Suharto accomplished through authoritarian rule between 1966-1998. Indonesia has not yet a strong "culture" of democracy, Meidyatama declared—-uunquestioning support, the feeling that democracy is "the only game in town," does not really exist.

Yet Indonesians are interested and knowledgeable about their country's politics, declared Jim Della-Giacoma of the National Democratic Institute (NDI). He cited NDI's recent focus groups, which showed ordinary people freely and enthusiastically participating in discussions that would have landed them in jail during the Suharto years. According to Della-Giacoma, Susilo is disliked by few, and has impressed Indonesians by his candid yet firm manner. Susilo is the "second choice" of many people who did not vote for him in the first round, and therefore is likely to do well in the run-off, Della-Giacoma maintained.

The sudden emergence of Susilo's Democratic Party was discussed by Muhammad Qodari of Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI), who could not attend the event but who submitted a paper that was read aloud. The rocketing popularity of Susilo, who resigned from Megawati's cabinet only four months before the presidential election, shows that Indonesians are fed up with the status quo. The impressive growth in the Prosperous Justice Party-―another small "darling of the electorate" with a particularly clean image―-also shows people's craving for change.

Commentator Karl Jackson of SAIS at Johns Hopkins University hailed the "remarkable achievement" of Indonesia's free and fair election. However, he contended that Indonesia has a long way to go, pointing to the weak judiciary (which you can "rent but not buy") and rampant corruption. He also described personality politics―-the dependence of parties on charismatic individuals―-as one of Indonesia's most serious political obstacles.

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