INDONESIANS ARE trying something new -- an election in which the winner is not preordained. There are plenty of potential pitfalls in this; already, the slow vote count is sparking fears of fraud. But given Indonesia's situation little more than one year ago, its transition toward democratic rule has so far been astonishingly successful.
It was little more than a year ago that protesters forced President Suharto to resign after 32 years in power. Many experts predicted that the nation would collapse without him. The dictator was the only guarantor of stability, it was said. Economic crisis, regional divisions, rural poverty would all spiral out of control and make elections impossible.
But on Monday, Indonesian voters -- 96 percent of them, it is estimated -- voted in generally peaceful conditions. Many now say they can't imagine returning to one-party rule. Freedom of speech and of the press already seem right and natural. And democracy, rather than exacerbating Indonesia's problems, may contain the seeds of solutions. The economy is more likely to recover once unchained from the corruption of Mr. Suharto's relatives and cronies. The nation is more likely to stay together if regions are given more authority. Development is likelier without the stifling influence of the longtime ruling party, Golkar.
Things still could go wrong. The next president will be chosen by 700 electors, only 462 of whom were directly elected Monday; the rest will be appointed by the military, provincial governments and various interest groups. This dilutes democracy and creates the possibility of a Golkar government even if the old ruling party falls short of majority support. The chief opposition leader, meanwhile, has barely sketched out her views or goals. The army and paramilitaries continue to abuse civilians in several parts of the country. And even if all goes smoothly, there is bound to be some post-election letdown when it becomes clear that a democratic government can't solve all problems.
Still, it's noteworthy that democracy continues to advance in Asia, where not so long ago a phalanx of strongmen proclaimed their continent unsuitable for representative government. South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and to an extent Hong Kong have followed Japan and India into the ranks of Asian democracies. Their success further isolates retrogrades such as Burma, with its crude military dictatorship, and Malaysia, where the once-admired prime minister continues to hound his former deputy. If Indonesia can succeed as the world's third most populous democracy, the balance in Asia will have shifted in a decisive and wholesome way.