Thu, 25 Dec 2003

The possible impact of the elections on ASEAN

Bantarto Bandoro

The last decade has seen tremendous pressure for greater democratization in Southeast Asia. This pressure will be sustained as Indonesia will hold its general election next year, a process that will determine the country's destiny at the global as well as regional and national level. It is also during such an occasion that the world will witness how the fate and the future of the Indonesian nation, economically and politically, is decided and contested through the ballot box.

Once the elections are over, generally people then demand greater peace, security and stability. They also demand sustained economic growth, more prosperity and justice. But beyond these, they will also want a legitimate government which is clean and transparent. However, the process toward a more democratic Indonesia alone is certainly not enough.

Indonesia must go beyond democracy to address something more encompassing and more fruitful and promising; that is good governance.

The countries in Southeast Asia will be very anxious to see whether Indonesia can survive the election process peacefully.

The outcome of Indonesia's experiment in democracy would certainly have a major impact in shaping the political evolution of Southeast Asia as well as the long-term stability and security of the region.

The coming general election will be very different from the previous ones, because of the application of a new system and rules.

Indonesia will have its first ever direct presidential election, and this will have far-reaching implications for democracy and stability in Asia and Southeast Asia in particular.

No one is sure whether the new system and rulings will guarantee clean and fair elections. One may, therefore, cynically argue that the new sets of rules will only make the process more complicated, which is feared will create chaos and instability.

Maintaining stability and security has always been the core concern of the countries in the region. No regional or national policies are pursued without reference to such objectives.

It is inevitable that the changed political environment in the region, caused either by domestic turbulence or external factors, has to some extent affected the security of the region, and thus the direction as well as the policies of a given country. It is through such a prism that the region looks at our general election.

By next year, Indonesia will certainly be the central focus in the region as it develops into a more democratic country, a process that would certainly be welcomed by most Southeast Asian countries. But one must acknowledge the fact that democratic change is really never easy, even for those who have practiced democracy for a long period of time.

Rarely is democratic change peaceful. Often there is bloodshed and turmoil. Southeast Asian countries might have this kind of view toward Indonesia, one probably built upon the reality that instability has long been perceived as a chronic condition in Indonesia. Therefore, if democracy turns into street rallies and brawls, and the citizens lose sight of the ultimate goals of peace and prosperity, the road to true democracy and stability will for sure not be smooth.

We have witnessed the fact that the country has changed political leaders under unconstitutional or at best constitutionally questionable circumstances. We also witnessed that riots and violence filled the transition period from the accession of B.J. Habibie to the presidency to president Abdurrahman Wahid's removal by the People's Consultative Assembly in July 2001. These did affect the progress toward a more democratic society.

Megawati Soekarnoputri's ascension to the presidency indeed defused the political crisis that preceded Abdurrahman's removal. However, the obstacles to democratic consolidation remain formidable even now.

That is to say that the 2004 general election will be conducted amid very fragile domestic political and economic conditions.

In addition, the election will be held at a time when the country has not yet stabilized in terms of ethnic and religious conflicts and threats to its territorial integrity. Under such conditions our neighbors will be watching us. In short, disintegration could be the last stage of the scenario, that would drive the regional security environment in the opposite direction.

Immanuel Kant

Reference has often been made to the thinking of Immanuel Kant (1795) when one discusses the essential link between democracy and stability. It is argued that democracy is one of the main components for a prosperous and stable region. But the democratic process in Indonesia can become a serious problem for the stability of the region unless it is carefully and properly managed.

Indonesia needs a high degree of awareness that democratization requires hard work in promoting not only a sense of stability -- domestically and regionally -- but also good governance. Nation building is also a prerequisite in the democratization process. Can the post-election Indonesia offer such a hope, or can it even do better for itself and the region as a whole?

At the regional level, a shared adherence to democratic values should enable the countries in the region to enhance and strengthen the stability and peace in the region. A democratic Indonesia should be part of such a project provided that it not only avoids a collapse of authority in Jakarta, with different factions vying for power, but also has the capacity to sustain long-term domestic stability.

Although the elections are still five months away, there is already a widespread view that the chances of a stable democratic transition are not good given the fact that the main candidates have already started firing bullets at each other. This in turn forces the candidates to react by -- among other things -- mobilizing their militia groups or launching counter political moves at a higher level.

It is not impossible therefore that such a tendency will emerge during the elections. The worst-case scenario is the emergence of forces that backtrack and work against democracy. There is reason therefore for the public here as well as the countries in the region to be concerned about the negative impact of the Indonesian elections. If anything bad happens, efforts to promote peace, security, prosperity and regional integration based on democratic principles will be substantially undermined.

The likely impact of the post-election Indonesia on security in the ASEAN region can perhaps be explained only if we speculate on the outcome of the elections.

This article attempts to illustrate the possible scenarios based on the impact of the Indonesian elections on the ASEAN region.

One of the scenarios is that after the election, the political leaders in Jakarta, whoever they are, will continue to move the political reform process toward a stable democratic order. But it is contingent on whether the new government will be able to have a full grip on the economy, and restore investor confidence, enforce the law and eradicate corruption and nepotism within the bureaucracy.

Image building after all is part of the objectives that have to be achieved through such political reforms.

If the next government were able to manage those challenges successfully, then the prospect for democratic consolidation would improve. If so, this would certainly be a positive contribution to the building of democratic principles, which are the foundation of national and regional stability and cooperation.

A stable, strong and democratic Indonesia would strengthen its leadership role in ASEAN. This is very important for the maintenance of long-term regional stability. It will also enhance and strengthen ASEAN capacity for collective action based on "accepted" democratic values and principles. Conversely, an unstable Indonesia with its fragile democratic life -- would make the regional security environment uncertain and even dangerous.

This would mean that while the countries in the region highly value the strategic importance of Indonesia, failure in the democratic process could turn Indonesia into a trouble spot.

For most countries in Southeast Asia, the overriding concern about Indonesia is perhaps not whether it is democratic or not, but when stability will return and how. They will be curious to see how Indonesia will be able to balance its need for both democracy and stability. While the people in Indonesia yearn for democracy and aspire to be democratic, it is also true that it is not the panacea for all ills.

What the ASEAN neighbors will wonder then is whether Indonesia's search for stability will take a course toward more democracy, or lead to a more authoritarian regime, and how can the case for Indonesian democracy for long-term stability be convincingly and clearly made to the Indonesians whose daily lives are affected by instability and street violence?

The evolution of Indonesia's democracy could drive the Southeast Asia security environment into a certain direction. What we would hope to see is that violence-free elections and a successful democratic transition in Indonesia could contribute toward stability in Southeast Asia. Given that Indonesia is the current chairman of ASEAN, a stable and democratic Indonesia could help realize the newly proposed ASEAN's concept of community. Can such an image help eliminate the perception that instability and chaos is a chronic condition in Indonesia?