Sat, 10 Jul 2004

The significance of the Indonesian election

Sin Chew Daily, Asia News Network, Selangor, Malaysia

Indonesians have just voted for a president for the first time in the country's history. They have voted directly from five pairs of candidates to assume the country's presidency and vice presidency.

While vote counting is still in progress, no candidate has so far managed to bag more than 50 percent of votes, meaning Indonesians are heading for another run-off in September.

Former political and security affairs minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is leading with 34 percent of votes, as anticipated by analysts. Incumbent Megawati Soekarnoputri is second with 27 percent while former general Wiranto contesting on a Golkar ticket is third with 23 percent.

If the first round of election is unable to produce a president and vice president, a run-off between top two vote- getters will take place on September 20.

From the experiences in many countries and regions, high spoilt vote ratios are always a source of controversy.

In the March presidential election in Taiwan, the chaos and violence ensuing were said to be attributed to the unperceivably large number of spoilt votes, among others.

If that could happen to a generally more matured democracy and better educated populace in Taiwan, what about Indonesia, which has a relatively low standard of education and much more intriguing racial and religious relationships?

Indonesia is not only the world's fourth most populous nation, it is also an immense archipelago of well over 10,000 islands. The country spreads far and wide and boasts more than half a million polling stations.

This, coupled with hand count of votes, may make it hard for full results to be released by the July 26 deadline. The situation can complicate further if recount is seen as necessary when the votes of Megawati and Wiranto are too close to be comfortable.

As such, before the run-off, factors of instability and uncertainty can be all too real.

Whether the republic is able to shrug off the chaos following the ouster of Soeharto's autocratic regime six years back will very much depend on the self-restraint on the part of opposing forces as well as their honoring of democracy.

If Indonesians lack the maturity and patience, the country will fall apart again, an Indonesian daily has warned.

As a matter of fact, it is laudable, from the perspective of democracy, that a densely populated third world country like Indonesia can hold such a direct presidential election despite the challenges.

Indonesia is also the first country in ASEAN to hold such an election. Consequently, notwithstanding who wins the election, the country's firm position on democracy should be highly applauded by the international community.

Although it is inevitable to pay a heavy price for democracy -- hundreds of precious lives have been lost in each of India's elections, for instance -- we remain positive that each of these painful experiences will bring us to realize the cruelty of violence and bloody clashes. We will learn about the importance of peace and march more confidently towards democracy. It is the same thing for Indonesia.

The first ever presidential election in Indonesia is not only highly significant for the country's democratic system, but has also set a valuable example for other regional countries still unable to offer true freedom and democracy to their citizens through democratic channels.