Indonesian Election Results Reflect Country's Internal Impetus for Reform

By Gee, John | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Indonesian Election Results Reflect Country's Internal Impetus for Reform


Gee, John, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won a dccisive victory in October's second round of Indonesia's presidential elections, taking 60.6 percent of the more than 110 million votes cast. Defeated incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri had hoped to the very end that the opinion polls were wrong and that the established party machines supporting her would bring in the votes when they really counted, but SBY's campaign momentum proved unstoppable. Compared to the July poll (see October 2004 Washington Report, p. 34), Megawati took 12.8 percent more of the total vote, but Dr. Yudhoyono (as his aides have asked the media to call him following the victory of his populist campaign) gained 27.1 percent.

Not only did the new president have the open support of his own Democrat Party and of two large Muslim political organizations, the National Mandate Party and the National Awakening Party, but he was also able to draw upon backing from within the formally pro-Megawati coalition. That grouping saw its strength further sapped following the election. The smallest of the three main pro-Megawati parties, the United Development Party (PPP -the Muslimbased party that was permitted to function under the Suharto dictatorship), began shuffling toward Yudhoyono. With his support, it put up its own candidate for the post of speaker in Indonesia's parliament, the House of Representatives. He lost to Agung Laksono, candidate of Golkar, the largest parliamentary party, but the PPP's defection from the defeated bloc was a sign of the times: the fragmentation of a coalition whose essential purpose was to stop SBY in his tracks is a process that has not come to an end. On paper, Agung should have been guaranteed at least 307 votes (the total number of seats held by the alliance of Golkar and Megawati's PDI-P) out of 550 in the Indonesian parliament, but he won by 280 votes to 257-evidence of defectors and abstainers from his camp.

After the result of the presidential vote was confirmed, Indonesians and their neighbors talked about the policies they hoped Yudhoyono would implement and, in particular, about whether he would do anything to curb the widespread corruption that has stymied attempts to attract large-scale foreign investment over the past seven years. Yet the most significant aspect of this election may be what it represents in Indonesia's political development.

Only eight years ago, Indonesia was still ruled with an iron hand by President Suharto, who had come to power through the army. Freedom of speech and expression was limited; only three political partics were legally permitted to exist, the largest of which, Golkar, was the principal civilian prop of the regime, although it was closely associated with the army. Power was centralized in the hands of the president, his family and his allies.

Suharto fell in 1998 amid the instability provoked by the economic crisis that swept through Southeast Asia the year before. Since then, a striking transformation of Indonesia's political order has taken place. There is a free and varied press; independent trade unions are able to function; artistic expression is finding new openings in music, drama and art. Freedom of political association has led to a proliferation of parties. Golkar has survived and prospered only by adapting to the process of change in Indonesia. The country has developed a functioning parliament with real authority where there used to be rubber stamp institutions, and some authority has devolved to the Indonesian regions.

In 2004, Indonesia held the biggest democratic elections ever to take place in one day when it chose representatives for national, regional and local bodies. The military relinquished its 38 reserved seats in the 700-member MPR (National People's Assembly-the body which formerly elected and still retains the power to impeach the president), although it remains a strong political force. For the first time, Indonesians had the chance to elect directly their president and vice president.

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Indonesian Election Results Reflect Country's Internal Impetus for Reform
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