Indonesia has something to be proud of this week after holding yet another peaceful general election, further establishing our reputation as the world’s third largest democracy. This is the fourth democratic elections the country has held since the departure of dictator Soeharto in 1998. To this day, Indonesia has never looked back.
The April 9 poll to elect representatives in national and local legislatures will be followed in July by the presidential election. Irrespective of who wins them, these political processes ensure peaceful, orderly and democratic succession of governments.
Out goes President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono after serving the maximum of two five-year terms allowed by the Constitution. In October, we will have a new president, Indonesia’s fifth since 1998. Contrast this with two presidents, Sukarno and Soeharto, who between them ruled Indonesia during its first 53 years as an independent state.
Exit polls of the April 9 election also indicate the resurgence of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) as the largest party in the House of Representatives, a position it last held after the 1999 elections.
It is debatable how much of this PDI-P victory is owed to the nomination of the popular Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo as its presidential candidate, but if Jokowi goes on to win the election, we will have a PDI-P-led government. In 2004, the Golkar Party held that position and in 2009, Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party held the majority at the House.
Indonesia is now quite comfortable with the constant changing of the guard. These changes reflected the will of the people who exercised their sovereign rights through the periodic elections. The elected leaders are too learning that their positions and influence are not permanent, and that they have to account for their policies and actions.
There is nothing unsettling about changing leaders. If they are good, keep them, as with Yudhoyono with his second term in 2009; if they fail us, dump them, just as with Megawati Soekarnoputri in 2004. Similarly, we let different parties take turns in controlling the House.
Gone are the days when a president stays in office forever or until he dies, and gone are the days when one party controls the direction of the country for an extended period. Looking back 16 years, we haven’t done too badly. Indonesia has enjoyed political stability, which in turn allowed economic development to take place.
Granted, some would argue that we could have done so much better perhaps under different leaders. But that’s precisely the reason why we have elections.
Ours is a functioning democracy. It is far from perfect but it is good enough to ensure orderly changes in leadership, and good enough to prevent Indonesia from reverting to authoritarianism.
Democracy is a work in progress. It can and should be improved, constantly.
For one, we still need to deal with the persistent electoral frauds, including the practice of vote-buying, which have marred the process, fortunately not to the extent that it undermines the credibility of the election results. We also need to deal with the erosion of media integrity, as some of the big media outlets have been blatantly exploited by their owners to support their election campaigns. And there are some technical problems, such as an insufficient supply of ballots, which meant were not able vote.
Some improvements are already guaranteed. The nation has decided that in 2019 the two elections will be held simultaenously rather than having a three-month gap. This would mean that any party contesting the election would have the right to nominate a presidential candidate. It eliminates the need to form coalitions as well as horse- trading.
With 12 parties contesting the 560 seats in the House, this year’s election was definitely more straightforward and far less confusing than in 2009 when we had 38 parties. And when compared with the election in India, which also started this week and need five weeks to organize, ours also appears to be more efficient.
However, whether or not it was effective will only be seen once the results come out. This is something democracy cannot guarantee. Historically, we see some democratic elections empower the wrong people, those who don’t believe in democracy but simply use it as a means to gain power. History has shown that such errors in judgment have been catastrophic.
Adolf Hitler rose to power through this process and swiftly brought Germany to war with its neighbors, sparking World War II. In more recent times, you can put Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand and Mohamed Mursi in Egypt among leaders who successfully exploited the flaws in the democratic system to gain political power.
Many consider George W. Bush a poor choice to lead America, after launching two messy and unnecessary wars during his time, but at least in the United States, democracy has its own self-correcting mechanism. Egypt does not have such mechanism, resulting in the military takeover, nor does Thailand, leading to its perpetual constitutional chaos.
Which takes us to the question of the July 9 presidential election. With the strict nominating requirements, we are looking at a small field of three or at the most four candidates.
Jokowi, in spite of the disappointing weak “Jokowi effect” will likely remain the PDI-P candidate. Golkar seems adamant about nominating Aburizal Bakrie and Gerindra Party, whose candidate Prabowo Subianto is the second most popular candidate after Jokowi, may also just squeeze his nomination.
Is any of these candidates right or wrong, for Indonesia? Don’t make a mistake in July.
— Endy M. Bayuni
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