Next Monday, 147 million Indonesians go to the polls to elect Indonesia’s Parliament. It is the first step in a months-long process that will lead to the elections for the president later in the year. So far the campaign has been peaceful.
The fact that this is all happening at all is a kind of miracle. Indonesia’s experiment with democracy is about to pass a critical milestone. It has survived a full five-year electoral cycle since the first truly democratic election in 1999.
The five years since then have been mixed for Indonesia. The economy has staged at least a temporary recovery, and the constitution has survived the removal of the former president, Abdurrahman Wahid (“Gus Dur”), and his replacement by his deputy, Megawati Soekarnoputri.
The military has stayed on the sidelines, and important constitutional reforms were made to provide for the direct election of the president.
But at the same time, deeper reforms to Indonesia’s institutions needed to foster long-term economic development have been shelved. Apathy and cynicism about the value of democracy has grown, and with it a certain nostalgia for the authoritarian but effective ways of president Soeharto.
The open market in political ideas provided by democracy has not thrown up any new or compelling ideas for Indonesia’s future direction.
So on Monday, Indonesia’s voters will face a familiar line-up. The two big parties between them are expected to win more than half the vote. Last time Megawati’s party, PDI-P, won 34 per cent and Golkar, which was Soeharto’s political machine, won 22 per cent. This time the pundits expect their positions to be reversed, as Megawati suffers the political consequences of an ineffectual and disappointing incumbency.
Perhaps most striking, Indonesia’s smaller Islamic-based parties seem to have made little progress over the past five years. Islam appeared to have been making bigger inroads into Indonesia’s political life during the 1990s and many had expected that the polarisation between Islam and the West since September 11 would have amplified that trend, pushing a more stridently Islamic strain politics to the fore.
Instead, the polling suggests the Islamic vote will stagnate – which, if true, will reinforce the result of Malaysia’s recent elections in which the strongly Islamist party PAS was mauled.