COVER STORY: Indonesian elections ... and Australia
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, July 17, 2004
The first round of last week's Indonesian Presidential election, being counted as News Weekly goes to press, will have important implications for Australia.
Indonesia is Australia's largest neighbour, with a population of over 200 million people. It is the largest Muslim nation in the world, and since September 11, 2001, attention has been focused on al Qaeda's Indonesian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiah, which perpetrated the Bali bombing in 2002.
Indonesia suffers powerful centrifugal tendencies, with insurgencies in Aceh and West Papua which have been contained through the brutal use of military force, such as that seen in East Timor after the people voted against integration with Indonesia in 1999.
The past seven years have been extremely difficult ones for the Indonesian people.
After almost 30 years of gradually increasing prosperity under the domination of General (then President) Suharto, in 1997 Indonesia's economy collapsed as a result of a crisis of confidence and the flight of foreign capital on which the country's economy had become dependent.
The causes of this collapse were complex, and derived from uncontrolled foreign lending by both the public and private sectors, corruption, exchange rate policies, and a lack of transparency in Indonesian financial institutions, many of which were effectively government-controlled.
When President Suharto was forced to seek a multi-billion dollar bail-out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the conditions imposed had the effect of forcing up the price of basic commodities like rice and fuel, and caused widespread unemployment with the collapse of many banks and other companies.
In the ensuing turmoil, Suharto was forced to resign, and since then, Indonesia has had three Presidents in just six years: B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid, and currently, Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the founding President of Indonesia.
The 1997 collapse had a dramatic effect on ordinary people, with one World Bank estimate that the number of people living in poverty increasing from 23 million to 40 million almost overnight.
In these circumstances, it was easy for people to blame Indonesia's problems on the West, providing fertile soil in which Islamic extremists were able to plant seeds of discord.
The danger was (and to some extent still is) that Indonesia would descend into the sort of anarchy which occurred in 1965, before Suharto came to power, when hundreds of thousands of people were killed in unparalleled violence.
The danger of a breakdown situation was probably averted by the gradual transition from authoritarian to democratic politics, with Suharto's old party, Golkar, remaining a powerful political force in the country.
Although the Indonesian people are overwhelmingly Muslim, the country was founded in the 1940s as a pluralistic state, whose constitution guaranteed freedom of speech, association and religion. The principal guarantors of this pluralistic constitution have been the Indonesian armed forces (TNI), the secular forces represented by Megawati Sukarnoputri, and Golkar, the political force created by Suharto.
Islamist political organisations in Indonesia - whose membership is counted in the millions - have never been happy with this, and have attempted to establish an Islamic state for the past sixty years.
The recent elections reflected these underlying forces, with secularists forming alliances with moderate religious parties, in an effort to win the presidency, determined for the first time by popular ballot.
Early results indicate that the former Army General, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, won 34 per cent of primary votes, ahead of Megawati (25 per cent) and another former general, Wiranto (24 per cent).
There will be a run-off between the two candidates with the highest number of votes on September 20.
One pleasing aspect of the election was that Hamzah Haz, currently Vice-President and Chairman of Indonesia's third largest party, the Muslim-based United Development Party (PPP), secured just 3 per cent of the vote.
He once described the United States as "the king of terrorists", and expressed support for radical Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir before Bashir was arrested as a terrorism suspect.
The leading candidate, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was Security Minister in President Megawati's cabinet until he resigned in March 2004 to stand against her as President.
Yudhoyono has chosen a highly regarded former Golkar Social Welfare Minister, Jusuf Kalla, to stand as his Vice-President. He has committed himself to fight separatism and terrorism, and to win back investment if elected in September. For Australia, his election will be widely welcomed.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council