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Indonesia is stronger after parliamentary elections

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14 April 2009 12:43

Peter McCawley is a Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Project, ANU, and former Dean of the ADB Institute, Tokyo.  

How times change. Just a few years ago, the talk around Southeast Asia was that the influence of Indonesia — long seen as the natural leader within ASEAN — was on the wane, and that Thailand looked like emerging as the new leader. But domestic politics in these countries have led the two nations in very different directions in the past few years. 

In Thailand, the domestic political system is in an awful mess and Thailand is in no position to provide leadership to anybody. In Indonesia, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) has steadily strengthened his position since his election in 2004. The election results from the key parliamentary elections last week appear to have strengthened him even more.

Perhaps the single most important outcome from the election results in Indonesia is the strengthening of the processes of orderly, healthy competition within the Indonesian political system. During the previous Soeharto era, Soeharto's Golkar party maintained an effective monopoly over the Indonesian political industry. This collapsed when Soeharto was forced to resign in the midst of the 1997-98 economic crisis in Southeast Asia.

For a while after 1998 the Indonesian political industry passed through a fairly chaotic period. A number of presidents (Habibie, Abdul Wahid (aka 'Gus Dur'), and Megawati) came and went in quick succession and the parliament sometimes behaved in a fairly erratic and unhelpful way. The inside joke amongst Indonesian political observers in Jakarta was that Indonesia had acquired 'democrazy' rather than 'democracy'.

The Indonesian political scene settled down a bit after SBY won the presidency from Megawati in 2004. However, Megawati Soekarnoputri never really accepted her defeat. She has spent much time since then planning a comeback in 2009. Various other presidential hopefuls are also hovering around in the wings. 

It remained to be seen how all of this manoeuvring would work out and whether the political processes would work effectively. In the end, the elections last week went surprisingly smoothly. There were some well-publicised hiccups but little occurred which would be unfamiliar in the backrooms of the Labor Party in Sydney or the Democratic Party in Chicago.

It is too early to say much about the longer-term outcomes but on the face of it, things are encouraging. One outcome flagged by Kuskhrido Ambardi, a director at the Indonesian Survey Institute, will probably be a welcome consolidation of parties.

There was chaotic competition in the Indonesian political market before the elections because an excessive number of 38 parties joined in the contest. However only a few have emerged from the fray with their feathers intact. The Indonesian political system would probably operate more effectively if most of the smaller parties disappeared.

The other major outcome is that the line-up for the key presidential elections to be held in July looks clearer. The main contenders emerging from the pack are SBY himself and Megawati. This is not unexpected, and surprises could yet occur, but with three months to go, the parliamentary elections last week worked well in helping sort out the choices which Indonesian voters will face in the coming presidential election

Photo by Flickr user Orangescale, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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