INDONESIAN ELECTIONS scheduled for Wednesday represent a triumph for the country’s budding democracy. Yet the choice presented for president also carries risks to the progress the nation has made so far.
The race has tightened between the two candidates. Prabowo Subianto, a former general allegedly involved in human rights abuses in the 1990s, is seen as a decisive leader who would keep the country in order. His opponent, Joko Widodo, is the governor of Jakarta and has been dubbed “the people’s politician” for his ability to relate to the rural poor. Mr. Widodo once led in opinion polls by double digits but recently was ahead by only 4 percent, with more than a tenth of the population undecided. This makes real the troubling prospect of a Subianto presidency.
Indonesia has significantly democratized since the fall of the dictator Suharto in 1998. The upcoming election marks the fourth set of nationwide polls, and the presidential debates have been vibrant. Institutions have strengthened, even though corruption and Islamist militant groups pose serious problems. Indonesians have embraced democracy as a part of national life. In 1998, the myth of a virtuous Indonesian “guided” democracy or authoritarian “consensus” — in which rights are restricted and a benevolent ruler takes charge — was dispelled. Genuine democracy was accepted, and Indonesia transitioned toward free rule.
But there are signs that Mr. Subianto might return to the battles of the last century. In a speech eerily reminiscent of Suharto, Mr. Subianto said last weekend that direct elections were incompatible with Indonesian culture. He also compared democracy to smoking, a practice “that was hard to stop once somebody is hooked.” Rumors of Mr. Subianto’s strongman tendencies have floated around before, but his campaign vehemently denied them. He seemed to have expressed some regret for the past human rights abuses of which he’s accused. But the weekend’s comments confirmed an anti-democratic bent and raised a red flag about his suitability for elected office.
Some wealthy and educated voters appear to hope that Mr. Subianto can firmly mold Indonesia into a global powerhouse. In fact, his protectionist approach to the economy more likely would alienate investors; one Deutsche Bank survey showed that 56 percent of respondents would sell Indonesian assets if he were elected. His human rights record, which earned him an entry ban into the United States, will be scrutinized. If democratic institutions and rule of law are weakened, Indonesia could end up more isolated.
With Thailand under military rule and democratic reform stalling in Malaysia and Burma, Indonesia has been a bright spot in the region. We hope the July 9 election keeps the country on its forward track.
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