Democracy on a roll

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 July, 2004, 12:00am

Today, Indonesia has its first direct presidential election. What the electioneering has shown, thus far, is encouraging. The parliamentary elections last month were hard fought and had among the most complicated electoral instructions ever seen. But no one has complained about the results or the organisation of the polls.

In fact, although democratic theory usually does not place emphasis on party-building, to me, the best evidence of democratic maturity in Indonesia appears to be the extent to which real interests are being filtered through and into party organisation.

The Golkar party has, in an extraordinarily skilful way, converted Suharto's authoritarian state-serving machine into a well-rooted and geographically dispersed outfit.

The Islamic Union advises on Muslim interests, affecting several parties. There are lots of parties, but there is a tendency towards consolidation.

It is not fanciful to see Indonesia moving towards a three- or four-party nation, with shifting coalitions, as interests and events evolve.

Indonesia is said to be one of the world's most corrupt countries, and everyone has his or her own evidence of this.

But this election appears relatively clean - by anybody's standards.

Recent allegations of vote-buying talked of sums that are tiny in comparison to figures mentioned in similar claims in neighbouring states - and from the industrial democracies in times past.

As a Stanford University student in the 1960s, I had personal knowledge of bags of cash going into Illinois to ensure the election of John F. Kennedy. Money flows during election times - elections breathe through money. Young men are hired to demonstrate, as they have been doing all over Indonesia, but such protests would have little effect if the party in whose name they are shouting slogans did not have a resonance separate from the payroll.

No one can explain in financial terms the phenomenon of retired general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's dominating emergence as a frontrunner since resigning from President Megawati Sukarnoputri's cabinet.

No one has accused former general Wiranto of corruption. And the electoral watchdogs have not hesitated to blow the whistle - including at the ruling government, when it has allegedly used the instruments of state power for its own political advantage.

Can this election improve governance and stability - the basic functions of democracy? So far, it augurs well. We read much about the military's continued large role in the polity, its independent economic base and powerful reach. But compare it with a decade ago.

And one suspects that the two generals running for high office have done well because, while knowing how to effect and sustain stability, they will not be at the military's beck and call.

But, as elections reveal a popular will and a nationwide majority, the military will blend further into the background, the guarantor of order - something that the military is expected to be in all countries. My own bet is that democracy in Indonesia may be on a roll.

Scott Thompson teaches Southeast Asian politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts