April 2, 2004 | WebMemo on Asia
Even before the first vote is cast in the legislative elections on Monday, April 5, 2004, the Indonesian elections are a success. Indonesia and Indonesians have made remarkable strides in democratizing their government and society, and the outcome of the election is less important than the success of the process. Indonesia is peacefully transitioning to the world's third largest democracy, and the U.S. Congress should reconsider its sanction-oriented policies toward Indonesia.
On the institutional side, April 5 is only the second election since the demise of authoritarian kleptocrat Suharto's thirty-year reign in 1998. But the 2004 elections are more than just an exercise in democracy; they feature institutional improvements in the election process over the 1999 elections. In 1999, voters were able to vote only for a political party. Party leaders then selected legislators off a party list. In the April election voters are able to select regional representatives to the legislature and in July, for the first time in Indonesia's history, voters will go to the polls again to directly elect their President.
Another important change is that the newly elected legislature will no longer contain members of the military and police who have been appointed as legislators. The military and police officially surrender their seats this year. In a controversial, but seemingly well-intentioned move to further demonstrate that the military is subordinate to civilian rule and will not interfere in the election, Indonesia's military chief, General Sutarto, prohibited all members of the uniformed services from voting in the election.
There are also indications that Indonesia's civil society continues to mature. In the past, election violence was a major problem in Indonesia. Hundreds of people were killed in 1997, the last election under Suharto, and about 175 were killed in the 1999 elections. This year, little election related violence is expected and only 10 deaths have been directly attributable to election violence.
Another favorable indicator is that the police have been able to enforce order at political campaign rallies. During the 1999 elections, the police and military, associated with Suharto-era repression, were reluctant to approach campaign rallies for fear of inciting riots. This year, reports are that the police, detached from the military in 2000, were able to enforce traffic regulations and good order at rallies.
The most important election-year sign for Indonesia's economic future is that the Jakarta stock exchange has been unaffected by the campaign season. The Jakarta stock exchange continued to rise every day during the last week of campaigning. Success on the trading floor does not mean that Indonesia is out of the economic doldrums, but it is an indicator of political stability.
The April elections are no guarantee that Indonesia's polity is out of the woods, but they are a step in the right direction. Congressional policy toward Indonesia has been almost solely event-driven, such as the sanctions imposed after the 1999 East Timor disaster and the murders of the American teachers in Timika, Papua. In light of Indonesia's imminent graduation from a transitioning democracy to a mature republic, Congress should re-evaluate its policy toward Jakarta and base future relations on Indonesia's status as a fellow democracy and not as a recalcitrant dictatorship.
Dana R. Dillon is Senior Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.