Decoding Indonesia's election

JAKARTA — Indonesia’s second-ever direct presidential election, a major test for its still-evolving democracy, has commonly been described as dull. And that’s a good thing.

With the exception of complaints of bloated and fraudulent voter lists from the opposition, the elections passed peacefully and without incident. Incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a reform-minded former general, was re-elected in one round with an impressive, though not surprising, 60 percent of the vote, according to a quick count released hours after the polls closed, but which is considered accurate.

His two challengers — Yusuf Kalla, his current vice president who will have to remain as such until October, and Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president whom Yudhoyono already defeated once before in 2004, during the country’s first-ever direct election — finished with about 13 and 27 percent of the vote respectively.

Only 10 years ago, the country was in a political and economic tailspin. The Asian Financial Crisis, coupled with the institutionalized corruption made popular by Suharto, the country’s kleptocrat for 30 years, laid waste to any economic gains the general had previously made. Suharto was ousted after massive riots and for years the country struggled to find a leader who could bring stability. Add the rise of Islamic terrorism, and Indonesia looked destined to become another Pakistan.

Yudhoyono is not the most exciting of leaders, but in five years he managed to stabilize Indonesia, which is now a shining example to its neighbors and the region’s most impressive success story.

“When talking about this campaign, the lopsided race concealed what was really a dynamic and interesting election race,” said Paul Rowland, regional representative of the National Democratic Institute in Jakarta. “There were very few international election monitors this time around, a sign that the country is moving in the right direction.”

Yudhoyono’s election campaign slogan translated to “Continuation,” or “More of the Same,” which, despite its arrogance, is what most Indonesians want to see. In his first term, Yudhoyono instituted major economic and bureaucratic reforms, threw his support behind the now powerful anti-corruption commission, crushed the threat of Islamic terrorism and ended a nearly 30-year civil war in the northern-most province of Aceh.

The country’s problems, however, remain numerous. More than 100 million people still live below the poverty line, a separatist movement still brews in resource-rich Papua, infrastructure across the country’s 17,000 islands is laughable, and any gains made against corruption are under threat from a disinterested parliament.

Kalla’s campaign slogan had been the suggestive “Faster and Better,” a reference to complaints that Yudhoyono’s reforms, however noble, progressed too slowly in his first term. Few would disagree, but most would blame the president’s lack of a mandate rather than his lack of will.

The new president was forced to appoint numerous political and business leaders to his cabinet in exchange for their support during the 2004 election. Many, in fact, would blame the presence of Kalla as vice president — who is a leading figure of Golkar, the old political vehicle of Suharto — for holding things up.

Critics say that if Yudhoyono wants to increase the pace of reform, he’ll have to avoid such debilitating politics. There are early indications that he plans to do just that.

Probably sensing his popularity, Yudhoyono added Boediono, a highly respected technocrat and economist with no party affiliations, to his ticket this time around. The president’s choice of another academic economist, Sri Mulyani, as his finance minister during his first term launched the massive revamping of the tax and customs offices, which was encouraging to foreign investors. Now, she looks poised to move to Bank Indonesia to do the same thing there.

And without a third election to worry about (like in the United States, Indonesian presidents are limited to two terms), Yudhoyono seems well positioned to accomplish more of the same, except this time, he’ll have the independence to do it faster and better.

“I am calling this SBY: Part 2. Like 'Star Trek: Part 4,' there will be a whole new cast,” said Wimar Witoelar, a prominent political analyst and former presidential spokesman. “When he chose Boediono that was the moment of truth for me.”

Most importantly, however, oberservers say that Yudhoyono and whatever team he puts together will have to ensure that this democracy — which has so far been embraced by the Indonesian public — continues to strengthen in the years to come.

“This is the time when people must really begin to feel that democracy is a good thing,” Witoelar said. “This next term will be about establishing the long-term presence of democracy in Indonesia.”

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