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Indonesian democracy: lessons for the west

Pere Vilanova
29 September 2004

I spent two months in Indonesia in spring 2004 in the role of long-term observer (LTO) with the European Union’s election observation mission (EuEom). This was part of an ambitious attempt to monitor the April legislative elections and the two rounds of the presidential election, in July and September.

This mission was the biggest that the European Union has ever undertaken. It covered all thirty-two provinces, with teams of LTOs and their short-term equivalents (STOs), all working to very high standards.

Why did the mission matter? First, the country: Indonesia is a huge, important, though comparatively underdeveloped nation, with a population of nearly 240 million people, of whom more than 150 million are eligible to vote. Delivering a free and fair democratic process here presents a great technical challenge, one in which foreign observers can play a crucial role.

Second, the political challenge: Indonesia is on a path of transition to democracy, a process of unprecedented importance in the country and across the region.

Third, the Indonesian people, whose own rights and interests deserve to be considered, and not simply filtered (as Europeans tend to do) too much through “a strategic approach”. The Indonesian people deserve a proper transition to a stable democracy, just as we Spaniards deserved ours when the Franco dictatorship ended in 1975.

This third reason was especially important in influencing my decision to join a mission that took me from my home for a lengthy period, and at a time of profound change in my country. I arrived in Jakarta on 13 March - that is, between the “11-M” terrorist attacks in Madrid that killed 191 people, and the Spanish general election of 14 March won by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his Spanish socialist party (PSOE). I had left my country in a condition of shock and, after the long flight to Indonesia, awoke on my first day in the country with another.

But once I arrived in Bali, my final destination, I realised how important and valuable it was to be there. When people on this small island, so remote from Europe, learned I was from Spain they talked openly and showed the most sincere and compassionate feelings. After all, we were both victims of terrible terrorist atrocities.

Also by Pere Vilanova in openDemocracy: “Aznar versus the people: a Spanish divorce?” (May 2003)

Indonesia is not only a place where terrorists are recruited, or a place where terrorists plant bombs to kill foreigners. These things have happened - in Bali (October 2002), in Jakarta at the Hotel Marriot (August 2003) and again outside the Australian embassy (September 2004). But in all these cases many Indonesian people died too.

More particularly, the democratic transition is itself a key strategic target for the terrorists. It is not acceptable to them that an overwhelmingly Muslim Asian country should move, after long years of military dictatorship (authoritarian but secular), towards becoming a viable, pluralist democracy - setting an example for other countries in the region.

A maturing democracy

For all the forces of destruction at work, there are several signals that indicate a continuing transition towards stable democracy.

Even in 1999, the general legislative elections had been quite open and competitive. Political, social, economic pressures did trigger an alarming level of political violence at that time - most of it directed against Chinese, Christians and other minorities. But something very like a party system did develop, combined with a strong personal leadership of some leaders (like the former president, Megawati Sukarnoputri). And in the five years since then, both media and civil society groups have had become more autonomous and outspoken.

The three rounds of the 2004 elections have been calm, quiet and peaceful. There were minor incidents of violence, but our monitoring network found no evidence of violence organised with a specific strategic intent to disrupt the elections. Even in provinces where independence movements are active (Aceh, Papua) or where there has been considerable unrest (Sulawesi, Kalimantan), the legislative round in April passed peacefully; parties competed openly; there was no intimidation of voters; the media were broadly fair and (though some candidates exerted enormous economic influence) the privately-owned press granted access to all candidates.

In short, the electoral process was sound by all reasonable expectations. The European mission was able to work at grassroots level with a dense network of local NGOs whose staff where very well-trained, extremely committed and independent.

Bali, with around 2 million voters, had more than 9,000 polling stations. The election authorities decided that each polling station should have no more than around 300 voters in order to process each one properly. Electoral regulations were followed closely, and the institution in charge of the process - the Panwaslu – performed to the highest professional standards. We also scrutinised the pattern of police and army behaviour: during the campaign, in the polling stations on election day, and in the sensitive period after the voting, when votes are counted and results declared. Both institutions were, in the areas we covered, totally neutral.

Where alleged violations of electoral regulations did occur, this concerned in the majority of cases the use by parties of “children for electoral purposes”, something that is explicitly forbidden. When I went to monitor this, the “offenders” proved to be parents who had brought their children to peaceful rallies and been unable to resist the entreaties of their children to wear the irresistible coloured hats and caps offered by the political parties. This was considered “illegal” propaganda.

In some other minor cases, party militants were charged with removing the flags of rival parties. And in two cases on the whole island of Bali, two candidates were charged with promising rice in exchange for a “proper vote”. In all cases the accused complied with the sanctions imposed by the Panwaslu.

Future positive

Indonesia’s democratic transition in 2004 was characterised by the direct election of the president by the people (rather than by the legislature) for the first time, and by the healthy growth of the party system.

Twenty-four parties were competing in the April legislative elections – across a broad spectrum from the secular “centre”, “right” and (moderate) “left” to religious, Muslim parties. These latter – essentially the United Development Party, the Prosperous Justice Party and the Reform Star Party – are moderate in character, and their leaders are explicitly loyal to the constitution and its legal framework. Together, they represent fewer than 20% of Indonesian voters, who in their overwhelming majority identify with secular parties and a secular institutional project.

Some of the largest parties, including Megawati’s PDI-P and Golkar (the party of ex-president Suharto) are populist rather than right, left or centre. Moreover, as in Pakistan, India, or Sri Lanka, the rise of democracy is shadowed by the persistent influence of a few rich families who continue to exercise huge influence over the political game and the party system. Three sisters from the Sukarno family, for example, run a party each!

In the event, the legislative elections delivered spectacular change. The two biggest parties, Golkar and Megawati’s PDI-P, drastically reversed positions, with the latter relegated to second place. The new Democrat Party gained support on a strong and credible anti-corruption stand.

These results dealt a significant blow to Megawati and transformed the prospects for the presidential elections five months later, won after a vibrant campaign by the charismatic ex-general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in a run-off against Megawati. His qualities – a reputation for integrity, independence from the large traditional parties, widespread appeal (to young, urban voters, women, and professionals) paid spectacular dividends.

There are concerns about the new president’s potential populism, but Indonesia’s accumulating democratic experience seems by now well-established. Indonesia, like Brazil, shows that large and complicated electoral processes can proceed smoothly if they are based on an underlying political consensus. As one European observer has said: “perhaps we should care less about Indonesia and Brazil, and send observers to Florida in November”.

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