Democracy Wins in Archipelago

Published: 31st July 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th July 2014 11:57 PM   |  A+A-

Indonesia, the biggest new nation state to emerge during the post-colonial era in the mid-twentieth century after India and China, is in the midst of an intriguing democratic transition. After one of the closest races in the country’s history, it has been able to manage an orderly election from a blend of multiple ethnicities and religions, throwing up Joko Widodo—popularly known as Jokowi, an outsider in Indonesia’s entrenched military and political establishment—as its new president.

Jokowi’s victory is significant for several reasons. This presidential election marks the first poll in 10 years in which Indonesian voters were able to choose a candidate other than the country’s incumbent president. The current president, Susilo Yudhoyono, reaches his two-term limit this year. In this election, more than in previous ones, the voters have signalled that what they want is a clean break from the legacy of the Suharto dictatorship, which ended in 1998. The election, coming 16 years after Indonesia’s transition to democracy and the overthrow of the Suharto regime, indicates the consolidation of the democratic structures within this nascent democracy. Another country in Southeast Asia, Thailand, is now back under military rule.

Jokowi, who is due to start his five-year term as leader of the world’s third-largest democracy on October 20, will be like no leader Indonesia has had before, hailing from neither the armed forces nor from an established family, such as that of his early patron, Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Sukarno, modern Indonesia’s founding father, and a president herself in 2001-04.

Instead, Jokowi rose up through local government, a product of the far-reaching political decentralisation introduced after the overthrow of Suharto, Indonesia’s late dictator, in 1999. A former furniture exporter, Joko was elected mayor of Solo, a medium-sized city in central Java, before becoming governor of Jakarta in 2012. He has a reputation for being a man of the people. The road ahead for Indonesia’s new president-elect is not easy. The largest national economy in Southeast Asia is faltering. Energy subsidies are a destabilising the country’s current account deficit. The hunt for more natural resources is ravaging the archipelago’s seas and remaining forests. And a sprawling, corrupt bureaucracy is in urgent need of improvement. However, his immediate challenge is to mend the rifts from a highly divisive election. His victory speech calling for a “united Indonesia” and appealing Indonesians to put behind them the rancours of the campaign shows he is aware of this.

This will no be easy. Prabowo Subianto, a former general related to Suharto, has already moved the Constitutional Court of Indonesia challenging his election on the ground of fraud and rigging. The verdict is expected in August, but it is unlikely to change the result as most outside observers have found the election to be generally free and fair with minimal abnormalities.

Still, the case would be a test for Indonesia’s young democracy and for the Constitutional Court especially. Set up after the fall of Suharto, its reputation suffered a grievous blow earlier this month when a former chief justice, Akil Mochtar, received a life sentence for rigging rulings on disputed local elections. Mochtar’s successor Hamdan Zoelva is a former member of one of the six parties that backed Prabowo’s bid for the presidency.

Even if Prabowo is unsuccessful in his legal challenge to Jokowi’s election, he is quite capable making things difficult for the new president. While the support of the people may be crucial in winning in a presidential election, it will not be of much use to the new president when he tries to win over a hostile parliament. With just 37 per cent representation in parliament, Jokowi’s coalition won’t be as effective as its counterpart in India.

After being sworn in, Jokowi will have to figure out which parties to lure into backing his government and who to include in his cabinet. As things stand, his rival Prabowo Subianto’s coalition accounts for two-third of seats in parliament. Unless some opposition parties eventually join the Jokowi coalition, the House could become a “killing ground” for any policies the Jokowi administration proposes.

To form a parliamentary majority, Jokowi needs a broad coalition, as did Mr Yudhoyono before him. For the outgoing president, that too often led to policy paralysis and graft.

Following the parliamentary elections in April, the need for coalitions to secure the necessary percentage of seats and votes prompted Jokowi to request former vice-president Jusuf Kalla to be his running mate. This combination was critical to Jokowi’s victory because Kalla is a former chairman of the Golkar party that came in second in the legislative election.

The tie-up with Kalla was potentially the trump card for Jokowi as this was seen as a critical factor in splitting the Golkar votes—given Kalla’s considerable influence among supporters. Interestingly Aburizal Bakrie, the current chairman of the Golkar, had, during one of the party’s national meetings, said the party actually backed the combination of Subianto and his running mate, Hatta Rajasa. In fact, a split in the Golkar was a clear sign that Subianto may not be acceptable to many due to his views on Indonesian nationalism and the human rights violations he has been associated with under the Suharto regime.

The Jokowi-Kalla combination won 53.16 per cent of the votes while the Prabowo-Rajasa combine won 46.48 per cent in what emerged as the most closely contested polls since Indonesia’s transition. With the victory of the Jokowi-Kalla group, Golkar may throw its full weight behind the new team, wanting to be on the right side of the political fault-line.

Independent observers feel if Jokowi means to deliver his election promises, he must not let consensus trump leadership. More than anything else, that means tackling corruption. He should start by filling his cabinet with capable technocrats, not party hacks. He must sack corrupt or incompetent bureaucrats and judges. And he must overhaul the venal courts. Only then will he be able to start to sort out the rest: weak government finances, rotten infrastructure, poor education and a ravaged environment. For all his promise Jokowi has much to do before he can be deemed a truly transformational leader.

The writer is a former professor of sociology, IIT-Kanpur.


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