Asia Media and the Indonesian Presidential Election

Editor’s Note: On 27 June, we published the following analysis of the very important nationwide elections in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation – and a secular democracy with more Muslim citizens (by far) than any other country.  Our analysis concluded with an endorsement for president in that contest. This gesture was motivated not only by the belief that democracy is imperiled in Southeast Asia, with Indonesia its greatest hope; but also due to the large LMU alumni community in Jakarta and the environs, about whom we care deeply.  Since this endorsement, the election was held, and a winner declared. But that result is under challenge = and may even face the possibility of military coup, as earlier this year in Thailand. We will be watching anxiously.


ASIA MEDIA WRITES – From Washington’s perspective, the top-burner crises today would include Iraq, Syria, and the Ukraine. We suppose it’s hard to argue with that … unless one views our future in Asia as important. Then we’d have to widen our perspective, wouldn’t we?

We know that Asia is vital for many reasons, in part because some of our fellow students (and of course profs) tell us that it is.  And we believe them.  They know what they are talking about. The obvious thing about international education is that it is tremendously educational.

But it doesn’t take an Asian and Pacific Studies major sharing a campus suite with a student from Asia to pick out gigantic China as central to our future. Japan and of course Korea would certainly make it on the radar. In fact, on a clear day, for example, you might even pick out Indonesia on our map – even if the senior sitting next to you in a Political Science class wasn’t from Indonesia.

Why bother with Indonesia? After all, the country’s sort of itsy-bitsy, right? (No – it’s an archipelago as wide as the continental U.S.). And under-populated like Australia, right?  (Nope – a quarter of a billion people, number four behind China, India and the U.S.).  But strategically, it’s marginal, right? (Ah, sorry again – home to the world’s largest population of Muslims, mostly Sunni, and you have heard of Sunnis, right?).

But what’s up with Indonesia right now? The answer is that in two weeks the largest national Muslim population (and the world’s fourth most populous country) will vote for who will be their next president.  Big deal, you say? After all, they have had these election things in Egypt and even Syria, not to mention even Iraq. One political sandstorm and it all washes away, no?

True enough, but these Indonesians certainly seem to be getting the hang of electoral democracy. This is anything but their first nationwide presidential election, and from the looks of things it won’t be their last.  To be sure, the excessive electioneering and sometimes crassly campaigning candidates may well be driven more by behind the scenes money interests than stated public policy (not unlike the U.S. right?). But the results will be as true and decent as any flawed election system can be. International observers will again be monitoring this election, having been invited by Indonesia, which feels it has little to hide.

This time around, two strong candidates with quite different profiles lead the candidate field.  One comes from a military career, and the other has been an elected politician. With these two before them, voters are presented with real choices, not just bland echoes. And the winner will be inheriting a country that may well be on the verge of a jump to the next level.

Prabowo Subianto

The race right now appears close, but a coalition candidate backed by a considerable number of Muslim parties seems gaining momentum. This is Prabowo Subianto, the former military man. He appeals to voters as the strong man capable of standing up for Indonesia against all challengers, which now may include China, bitterly reasserting long-repressed territorial and maritime claims.

But Prabowo strikes public poses that are reminiscent of the authoritarian past of the Suharto era, which ended 16 years ago, and reprises memories of the military’s history in viciously ignoring human rights. Many years ago, Prabowo was himself forcibly discharged by the Indonesia military for apparently overdoing it, even by the military’s own then-notorious standards.

Joko Widodo

His opponent, the candidate of the Democratic Party for Struggle, has been a working elected leader for years but cannot match the former general’s basic charisma and glibness.  Even so, his impressive record as a former regional mayor and then as governor (mayor) of Jakarta, a monster metropolis of about 10 million, has impressed many Indonesians. In fact, because of his public-policy performance, Joko Widodo is something of a regional, if not international, phenomenon – widely viewed as a politician who gets down to the people’s level to respond to concerns and improve public services in real ways and in real time.  He is anything but your everyday, pocket-lining, hack politician – that is for sure.

These two leading candidates comprise quite a real choice indeed for Indonesia, and of course only the people of Indonesia have the moral right to make that decision.  What outsiders may think, one way or the other, is quite peripheral, and in fact perhaps we are off base in offering an outside comment. But this archipelago in Southeast Asia is important not only in its own right: no Islamic-majority country practicing elective democracy can be anything but a very huge deal. But it also lives and breathes in the same neighborhood as countries that are very important to the United States, especially – to mention just two – Australia and Singapore.  A stable, economically developing and democratic Indonesia is thus a tremendous plus for all concerned.

In January a small team of student staffers at Asia Media here in Los Angeles launched a research project on this coming election. We also had inputs of various sorts from current and former Loyola Marymount students from Indonesia.  Put them all together, and Asia Media would like to propose a preference that the many undecided voters of Indonesia might find interesting.

From way over here, on the other side of planet earth, one candidate does look better than the other.  Issues of charisma and macho aside, politicians that do well in one office deserve serious consideration for higher office.  Good governance improves people’s lives.  But it is not easy to achieve. So when you have a good one, such as Jokowi, hold onto him (or her) for dear life. They don’t come around that often.  Asia Media thus sends up three cheers for Joko Widodo. We hope he will be the one elected. At the same time, the world will and should respect whatever choice the voters of the pivotal Islamic-majority country decide.

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