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Lessons for Myanmar in Indonesian politics

Since becoming the leader of Myanmar’s government in April, Aung San Suu Kyi has often said that her top priority is achieving peace — ending the civil war that has raged in her country since independence in 1948. She has also stressed the importance of overcoming the poverty that the general population has sunk into during the past five decades of military rule.

Progress in both areas will not be easy due to the vested interests of military leaders and their longtime business partners. These are the people who will lose relative wealth and status if the reforms required to bring prosperity to the whole country are undertaken. The first order of business for Suu Kyi is to consolidate sufficient power to co-opt or overcome these vested interests.

Consolidating political power as a former opposition leader in a country undergoing a transition to democracy is incredibly difficult. It cannot be done openly. Inevitably it requires compromises that call into question the leader’s commitment to the goals of her or his election campaign and these compromises can easily lead to a disaffected electorate. It also cannot be done quickly. A frontal assault on key sources of military and economic power may have been successful in some eastern European countries following the collapse of the Iron Curtain, but Suu Kyi is working in a very different political, historic, and geographic context. An approach that looks like a chess game played out over months and even years is more likely to succeed.

The experience of Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) sheds some light on the challenge facing Suu Kyi. Of course Indonesia is unlike Myanmar in many respects, but both Jokowi and Suu Kyi were catapulted to leadership positions as ‘outsiders’, personalities unconnected to the longstanding holders of military and economic power.

Jokowi was a small business owner when elected mayor of Solo, a mid-size city in Central Java, in 2005. By focusing on the concerns of ordinary people and doing little to cater to the elite he became immensely popular, winning re-election as mayor in 2010 with 90 per cent of the vote. His reputation as a doer, in contrast to the talkers more often elected to such offices, made him the leading opposition candidate in the 2012 election for governor of Jakarta. He won handily with 54 per cent of the vote against the incumbent governor.

Two years later the major political parties were wooing Jokowi to be their candidate in the election for president of Indonesia. He opted to remain with the nationalist-populist Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle led by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri. The opposing ticket was led by Prabowo Subianto, a highly controversial retired Lieutenant General in the Army and son-in-law of former president Suharto. Prabowo was the epitome of an insider leading a coalition of status quo parties. Jokowi was the quintessential outsider, making uncomfortable compromises with party leader Megawati who was more inclined toward traditional deal making than progressive policies.

Eight months before the July 2014 election, Jokowi led Prabowo in one highly regarded poll by 62 to 23 per cent. His lead steadily narrowed to 46 per cent to Prabowo’s 45 per cent one month before the election, with momentum clearly favoring Prabowo. Jokowi’s victory with 53 per cent of the vote was achieved in large part through an exceptional social media campaign orchestrated by young Indonesians. Post election, his popularity rating rose to 72 per cent.

But only four months after Jokowi’s inauguration 75 per cent of Indonesians were dissatisfied with his performance. Why? Because in his first 100 days in office he had not succeeded in ‘cleaning house’ or achieving many of his other campaign promises. But then his poll numbers started rising again: 41 per cent favourable in June 2015, 52 per cent at the end of his first year in office, and 69 per cent in October 2016 at the end of his second year.

Jokowi was consolidating power by making compromises viewed as unsavoury by his strongest supporters. As he did this, he was able to move ahead with sensible policy measures previously blocked by the elite.

This pattern of disillusionment with the performance of a popular opposition leader is underway in Myanmar. Since Aung San Suu Kyi became head of the government in April, scepticism about her performance has steadily grown, reinforced by foreign advocacy groups with little understanding of the power structure inside Myanmar. She has not launched a frontal attack on any vested interests and has made compromises that seem inconsistent with the reformist promises of her election campaign.

Hopefully Suu Kyi will be as successful in consolidating power as Jokowi has been so far. It will most likely be harder for her to do and take longer. But if she succeeds, the disappointments from her compromises in the short term will be more than compensated for in the long term.

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