Interpreting the Indonesian Election Results
Interpreting the Indonesian Election Results
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Interpreting the Indonesian Election Results

There are three wrong ways to read the July 5 presidential elections in Indonesia: As a guide to who will win in the September 20 run-off, as a clue to what the next president's policies will be and as definitive proof that democracy in Indonesia is secure.

One of the most refreshing aspects of this election, the country's first direct presidential vote ever, has been the unpredictability of results. In December, most people thought incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri could still win. By May, it wasn't even clear if she would make it through to the second round of voting. Now, she has a slight lead over the Golkar candidate, Gen. Wiranto, for second place (but the vote-counting isn't over yet). Golkar, the former ruling party during the Suharto days, defied predictions by not being the well-oiled, disciplined machine of the past. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the retired general who is set to come in first, isn't expected to rack up the 40% of the total vote that he had hoped for. But nine months ago, Mr. Yudhoyono was barely on the radar screen.

For a novice candidate in a novice party to lead the pack is a remarkable feat, but Mr. Yudhoyono is not a shoo-in for president. Everything is going to depend on the alliances built between now and September.

Who gets the conservative Muslim vote? Probably not Ms. Megawati. But will Mr. Yudhoyono have to promise anything to secure it? Who gets the anti-military vote? Probably not Mr. Yudhoyono. But is it an issue that will affect the outcome?

Both Mr. Yudhoyono and his opponent will want to tap into the Golkar vote, particularly since Golkar will control the largest block of seats in the new parliament come October. Like flies to honey, some Golkar officials already are beating a path to the frontrunner's door. But if Ms. Megawati does indeed become the second candidate, she could offer an alliance to Golkar that would potentially put the presidency and parliament in the same hands. If they can figure out how to do it, it would be a great deal.

But here is the main reason for the unpredictability this year. Everything is up to the voters, not the party hacks. Backroom deals worked out by the candidates have not swayed voters. They surprised the pundits during the April parliamentary elections and they surprised us again recently. They will almost certainly surprise us again in September.

Next, does the presidential election offer any clue as to the policies of the next national leader? If the answer is no, the pertinent question then may be less who will win than will it make a difference? Mr. Yudhoyono has an image, carefully cultivated, as the fresh face, the thoughtful reformer, the person who will choose his ministers based on merit. But if a victory in September depends on promises of spoils, the new faces could look a lot like the old ones. The reverse could be true as well. If Ms. Megawati pulls through as a candidate, she might find it necessary to articulate a new commitment to merit as a way of challenging the opposition.

Both candidates are going to have to tackle hard questions: improving the country's economic performance, cleaning up the courts, reducing corruption, moving forward with security-sector reform, attracting foreign investment, easing communal tensions, reducing support for separatist struggles, addressing demands for justice. Ms. Megawati's record as president on all these issues is decidedly mixed. While Mr. Yudhoyono the candidate has a good mission statement, it is unclear whether Mr. Yudhoyono the president would have the political capital, skills or will to achieve his own aims.

Finally, what does the July 5 election have to say about Indonesian democracy? The signs are all good: an 80% turnout, generally high enthusiasm and a generally fair vote. The way that the electoral process has strengthened political institutions is also heartening: not only has it helped guarantee the legitimacy of the new president and parliament, but it has given new weight to political parties and other institutions, including the new Constitutional Court, tasked with adjudicating any claim of electoral fraud.

But too often, we equate free-and-fair elections with democracy triumphant. Indonesia deserves all the accolades heaped upon it for conducting such a complex series of elections so well and so peacefully. Indonesian voters in particular deserve applause for always being one step ahead of the pundits. But an international seal of approval for the election process has sometimes meant turning a blind eye to everything else that follows. The president who comes to power after the September run-off has to deliver meaningful results to the electorate in five years. That's when the true test of the strength of Indonesian democracy will take place.

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