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Commentary: An Unremarkable Election In Indonesia. That's Remarkable


Indonesia's presidential election runoff is coming down to the wire. Officially, most polls put Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general from the Suharto era, well ahead of incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri. But the margin of error in local polling has traditionally been so high that even Yudhoyono's supporters concede that it could be anyone's election when votes are cast on Sept. 20.

"Both sides have campaigned very hard in the past few weeks," says Ryaas Rasyid, a former minister for regional autonomy. "Both are equally matched and have had equal opportunity to articulate their vision for Indonesia." Megawati has her incumbency as an advantage, as well as the backing of the three biggest parties, including Golkar, Suharto's old party. Yudhoyono, who combines a reformist image with a law-and-order theme, has the backing of the media, the urban elite, and some sections of the army.

What's so special about all this? In some ways, nothing -- and that's what's remarkable. "Everything will go smoothly. I don't think there will be any problems," says R. William Liddle, a political science professor at Ohio State University and a prominent authority on Indonesia. Election monitors deemed the Apr. 5 parliamentary election and the first round of the presidential election on July 5 as generally fair. The same is expected of the Sept. 20 vote.

A semi-normal election? That's a far cry from the usual tumult of Indonesia. Since 1998, it has been one crisis after another: the fall of Suharto, the blood-soaked referendum in East Timor, the fall of the government of President Abdul Rahman Wahid, the rise of anti-American sentiment after September 11, the bombings of Western targets on Indonesian soil. But the turbulent past doesn't seem to be exerting much influence on this election. Instead, the candidates are stressing development and returning the country to a path of growth.

Religion, surprisingly, is not a theme. Both Megawati and Yudhoyono have built coalitions that have sidelined Islamic radicals. Islamic parties -- most of them moderate -- won a combined total of only 17% of the votes in the parliamentary elections. Leaders of one major group, the PPP, even said it was time to abandon their Islamist image and symbols. Fundamentalist ulamaks (scholars) and religious leaders -- once key power brokers -- have seen their clout reduced. "Neither candidate is beholden to ulamaks or religious groups," says Andi Mallarangeng of the Institute of Government Studies in Jakarta. "Our politics has moved toward the center."

There are several reasons for the shift. One is that the terrorist attacks created a backlash against militants. Another is that the struggle to emerge from the 1998 crisis has been so painful that voters want to focus on economic issues: Unemployment is 10.1%, and poverty afflicts 17.4% of the population. A third is that after six years of democracy, politicians have learned how to court the center. Yudhoyono has used his charm and charisma to his advantage. And Megawati has undergone a transformation from aloof politician to one who knows how to press the flesh and talk with villagers.

It's too early to declare Indonesia mature -- not with its poverty, corruption, and secessionist movements. How the parties act the day after the election is also important. In 1999, when Megawati lost the election to Wahid, her supporters took to the streets. But if the post-election period goes as smoothly as this election has so far, it will be another important milestone. In December, Indonesia graduated from a program of supervision by the International Monetary Fund. Most economists are forecasting 4.7% economic growth this year and 5.5% next year. "I think there will be a good recovery in investments, whoever wins," says Manu Bhaskaran, an independent economist in Singapore. With luck, the Indonesian people will be the real winners.

By Assif Shameen


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