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Indonesia’s Quiet Revolution


For the past few years, most news reports from Indonesia have featured terrorists, regional insurgencies, and human rights violations. They portray a government that is dealing ineffectively with these problems and an economy that is falling further behind its Asian neighbors. Developments beneath the surface, however, lead to a more hopeful view: Indonesia-the world's fourth most populous country and the largest by far with a Muslim majority-is undergoing a profound political transition. Over the past five years, its democratic system has been overhauled quietly but brilliantly, and the foundations for a better system of governance have been put in place. The government that takes office on October 20 will be the people's choice more than ever before.

Indonesia's democratic transformation, known as Reformasi, began in 1998. In the wake of ten years of flamboyant dictatorship under President Sukarno and more than three decades of iron rule by President Suharto, the country's political institutions were weak. Reformasi may have been more of an elite coup than a people's revolution, but its objective was to find a viable path to a just and prosperous society. In 1999, a new national parliament was chosen in the first openly contested elections since 1955, and Abdurrahman Wahid became president through an indirect vote. In mid-2001, Wahid was forced out of office due to his erratic leadership, and Megawati Sukarnoputri-Sukarno's eldest daughter-ascended to the presidency.

The results of a national election last April 5 showed just how profound an effect Reformasi has had on Indonesia's political system. Going into the election, President Megawati had all the advantages of incumbency, but the outcome reflected broad disappointment in her leadership. Her party-the secular nationalist PDI-P-won less than 20 percent of the popular vote for the 550-seat national parliament, down from 34 percent in 1999. Golkar-the centrist bureaucratic party nurtured by Suharto-came out on top, finishing with the most seats in parliament, although its share of the vote had fallen slightly since 1999. The poor showing of these two leading parties especially benefited the secular, progressive Democratic Party (PD), led by former general Susilo Bambang Yudhyono, and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), an urban-based Islamic party campaigning on a platform emphasizing clean government.

At the heart of Reformasi was a constitutional amendment that requires the direct election of the president for a five-year term beginning this year. Through a complex, finely tuned set of rules, the April 5 parliamentary election yielded the five tickets-for president and vice president-that competed in the first-round presidential election on July 5. The results were a sign of the electorate's growing sophistication. Susilo Bambang Yudhyono (known as S.B.Y.) came in first with 34 percent of the vote. Based on an almost complete count, Megawati finished seven percentage points behind, edging out the Golkar candidate, retired General Wiranto, to claim the second spot in the runoff election scheduled for September 20.

The April and July elections reaffirmed the strength of moderate Islam in Indonesia. Five of the eight parties that captured more than two percent of the vote in April were Islamic parties, but all of them had moderate leaders and platforms. Four of the five tickets that competed in the July 5 election included a moderate Muslim candidate, and yet a third of the voters picked the entirely secular ticket headed by S.B.Y.

For the past generation, political succession has been a major challenge for Asian countries, and it has also become a burning issue in the Muslim heartland of the Middle East. Together with a successful transition out of International Monetary Fund tutelage and Paris Club debt relief, a smooth transition to a new government on October 20, whether headed by S.B.Y or by Megawati, will be a major achievement for Indonesia, providing it an opportunity to set itself firmly on the road to good governance and an improved standard of living for its 235 million citizens.


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