Election Angst: Indonesia's Tough Transitions

By Jiang, Shanshan | Harvard International Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Election Angst: Indonesia's Tough Transitions


Jiang, Shanshan, Harvard International Review


On September 20, 2004, Indonesia held its first direct presidential election in which former General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono defeated incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri by a landslide margin of 60.6 percent to 39.4 percent. While many expected the landmark election to be prime ground for chaos and ballot-tampering, the polls calmly hosted 116 million of the country's 212 million people while posting an accuracy rate of around 99 percent. The US-educated Yudhoyono, who was sworn in on October 20, promises to fight the corruption that has plagued Indonesia's government for the past 10 years and to boost a struggling economy in which 40 percent of people are either unemployed or underemployed.

Reaction to the election results was certainly upbeat. At the prospect of five years under Yudhoyono, people celebrated in the streets, Indonesian stocks, bonds, and currency all increased in value, and foreign businessmen renewed their interests in Indonesian investments. The next year will be crucial for Yudhoyono, who intends to prove naysayers wrong by demonstrating his political prowess in addition to his appealing personality. However, the latent party-dueling and corruption will prove a tough challenge.

Though Sukarnoputri's ousting was fairly pronounced, she does deserve some credit for putting Indonesia back on track. Her term began soon after Indonesia former President Suharto's 32-year dictatorial rule, which ended in 1998 amidst political and economic chaos. Sukarnoputri, who was elected by the legislature in 2001, oversaw economic recovery, a decrease in separatist, religious, and ethnic violence, as well as a smooth transition to a democratic constitution and free elections.

The contest was won on differences in personality and leadership style. Sukarnoputri and Yudhoyono differ little on the issues; they both wanted to raise workers' income, improve domestic investment, and fight terrorism. Yudhoyono was Sukarnoputri's security minister until his political aspirations forced their parting. Sukarnoputri's passivity in public office, which alienated her from the people, proved to be her Achilles heel. In contrast to the charismatic and personable Yudhoyono, who entertained the public with his fluent English and guitar-playing skills, Sukarnoputri was seen as elitist, aloof, and a poor communicator.

While Yudhoyono has promised great leaps forward, he faces an uphill battle. His challenges center on the dueling parties and the inherent corruption in Indonesia's Parliament. Yudhoyono has proposed a number of reforms, including centralizing policy making, streamlining regulations for businesses, forming an economic committee of advisors, and appointing a new attorney general. …

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