Indonesian Election

The overwhelming Presidential victory of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has enormous positive implications not only for Australia, but for the region in general.

1st Jul 2009


The overwhelming Presidential victory of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has enormous positive implications not only for Australia, but for the region in general. Whilst it will take several weeks to compile the official results from the three-way election on 8 July 2009, “quick count” tallies show that Dr Yudhoyono and his running mate – esteemed economist and former Bank of Indonesia governor Boediono – received around 60 percent of the vote, well above the 50 percent requirement to avoid a second round run-off election. Mrs Megawati Soekarnoputri’s coalition finished a distant second, with 25 percent of the vote and the Golkar coalition of standing vice president Jusuf Kalla gained only 15 percent.

Indonesia’s complex political process began with parliamentary elections last April, the results of which determined what political parties were eligible to nominate candidates for the presidency. Only Dr Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party achieved the minimum qualification of 20 percent of the vote to nominate a presidential candidate by itself. Candidates of other parties were required to form coalitions to achieve the minimum threshold. Dr Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party attracted 22 other parties to his banner. Two other coalitions formed: former President Megawati Soekarnoputri’s Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (Partai Democrat Indonesia – Perjuangan – PDI-P) and Vice President Jusuf Kalla’s Golkar Party each joined with other parties to reach the threshold to nominate a candidate for the presidency.

The successful conclusion of Indonesia’s 2009 political season continues one of the most astounding national political transformations in modern history, with important positive political and security implications for Indonesia and the region. Indonesia has made extraordinary progress in implementing its own system of democracy. Only eleven years after the end of Suharto’s 32-year autocracy, Indonesia is now the most democratic country in Southeast Asia. Two successful rounds of elections (in 2004 and 2009) were conducted with no violence, with viable candidates contesting for parliament and the presidency. Indonesia has emerged as an important regional and international voice in political and security affairs, while its economy has been buoyed by domestic consumption and has been much less adversely affected than its neighbours by the current world wide economic recession.

Much of the credit for these circumstances must go to President Yudhoyono, whose steady (if unspectacular) leadership has gained him great respect internationally, as well as huge support at home.

Despite the considerable achievements realised during Dr Yudhoyono’s first term, there have been lingering worries that Indonesian political progress was still overly influenced by holdover beneficiaries of Suharto’s legacy, particularly when both Mrs Megawati and Mr Kalla chose retired generals close to Suharto as their vice presidential running mates. Mrs Megawati chose retired 3-star General Prabowo Subianto, of the Great Indonesian Movement (Gerakan Indonesia Raya – Gerindra) Party. Mr Kalla chose as his running mate retired 4-star General Wiranto, from the People’s Conscience (Hati Nurani Rakyat – Hanura) Party. Both officers achieved prominence and notoriety during the Suharto era – Mr Prabowo formerly commanded the Army Special Forces Command (Komando Pasukan Khusus – Kopassus) and Mr Wiranto is a former commander-in-chief of the Indonesian Armed Forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia – TNI). Both have been accused of significant human rights violations during their military careers (see boxes).

Any worries about an unhealthy carry-over from Suharto-era cronies were firmly put to rest by Dr Yudhoyono’s large margin of victory. The Indonesian electorate had no difficulty in discerning the difference between a retired general with a career-long record of moderation and leadership, and two politicians who chose retired generals with dubious human rights as their running mates. While Dr Yudhoyono is often criticised for his painstakingly slow decision-making process, his ability to overcome serious challenges to the nation (the disastrous earthquake and tsunami in Aceh, the security challenge posed by the terrorist organisation Jemaah Islamiyah and its copycats, to name but two), his expertise in economic development clearly won out over his opponents’ appeals for nationalistic retrenchment and a rollback to the Suharto-style of autocratic leadership.

Dr Yudhoyono’s victory appears comprehensive indeed. He won in 28 of Indonesia’s 33 provinces. His few losses include South Sulawesi (home of Golkar’s presidential candidate Jusuf Kalla), Bali (a longstanding bastion of support for Megawati Soekarnoputri) and Central Kalimantan. He reportedly won 94 percent of the vote in Aceh, where he is idolised for directing the 2004 political settlement to the Aceh Merdeka insurgency, when he stood firm against conservative military officers who wanted to continue a huge military-police campaign started during Mrs Megawati’s term in office. Voters made economic development the key factor in their choice and fears that religious or ethnic factors would dominate the electorate proved unfounded.

Dr Yudhoyono’s victory has important ramifications on the international scene. His personal victory and the well-established democratic model he leads will give Indonesia increased clout for advancing democracy in Southeast Asia and beyond. Indonesia can be expected to speak more firmly on the need for an effective human rights policy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN], and to be more active – in public and behind the scenes – urging change with the despicable military dictatorship in Burma. As the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, Indonesia also demonstrates that religion and democracy can co-exist effectively.

Australia and the United States have reason to be extremely pleased by the outcome of Indonesia’s election. Both Dr Yudhoyono and Dr Boediono have long personal experience with both countries. President Yudhoyono trained several times in the US military schoolhouse and earned a masters degree in management, whilst simultaneously studying at the US Army Command and General Staff College. One of his children studied at university in Australia. Dr Boediono received his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Western Australia and Monash University, respectively, and his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania.

International economic and business interests should find Indonesia a more welcoming place for investment in the coming years. The new Yudhoyono cabinet is expected to be heavy on technocrat expertise and far less sprinkled with political cronies in need of a reward for support rendered. Dr Yudhoyono and Dr Boediono campaigned with a policy platform that emphasised the importance of foreign investment and the need for Indonesia to be more effective in working with the international economic system. Their vision for economic development is in sharp contrast to their opponents, who called for inward-looking nationalistic solutions to Indonesia’s problems. Dr Yudhoyono’s anti-corruption push (which snared several big fish despite the program’s haphazard search for wrongdoing) can be expected to continue to weed out graft, particularly in the notoriously corrupt civil service and judiciary. But the challenge to clean up Indonesia’s woefully corrupt judiciary is daunting.

Many observers will watch appointments to cabinet and sub-cabinet posts for a clue to future policies. Given the extent of his victory, Dr Yudhoyono and his Democrat Party’s parliamentary allies have many options in choosing cabinet members and negotiating legislation with parliament. With his strong mandate from the populace, the President may well become more assertive in policy formulation and decision-making. Dr Yudhoyono’s overwhelming election victory endows him with the political strength to appoint key subordinates without the need to prioritise support from other political parties. This facet was lacking during his first term’s coalition cabinet, when the various faction members were more concerned with strengthening their parties (and themselves) than with advocating the President’s policies.

By choosing the non-political but widely respected economist Dr Boediono as his Vice President, Dr Yudhoyono signaled personal political strength and the high priority that economic development will have in his next administration. Dr Boediono will doubtless have wide authority over economic affairs, allowing the President to focus on his political outreach both domestically and abroad.

President Yudhoyono’s re-election victory also has important ramifications for regional security. Despite the two recent bombings in Jakarta, he has been hugely successful in attacking Muslim extremist and terrorist organisations, such as Jemaah Islamiyah. Since 2000, more Indonesians have been killed by terrorists than in any country except the United States, so Dr Yudhoyono’s early recognition of that threat, his ability to achieve acceptance of the threat by his diverse populace, and his willing acceptance of assistance from Australia and the United States have made Indonesia a leader in the struggle against terrorism. This will certainly continue. His maintenance of continuing security assistance programs with friendly countries, and expanding cooperation with Singapore and Malaysia, are important components in the regional war on terrorism.

That cooperation has expanded since then, with formation of an international police center and steady improvement in pursuing and prosecuting alleged terrorists. The United States took the lead in training, equipping and supporting Indonesia’s National Police counter-terrorism unit, Detachment 88, which has had extraordinary success in tracking down terrorists. Indonesian police have killed, captured and prosecuted hundreds of extremist terrorists during this decade.

The President has been a long-time advocate of reform in the military, discretely during the Suharto years, and more forcefully since becoming President in 2004. He has been particularly successful in appointing skilled professionals at the top of the armed forces, men whom he has known through much of his life and trusts for their judgment and support of his policies. He was particularly skillful in manipulating out of power a conservative and stridently nationalist officer in line to become commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Since then, the military leadership has kept the force out of politics.

While Indonesia’s military reform efforts are far from complete, the armed forces have achieved major changes. Now the President must address chronic under-funding of the police and armed forces and find a way to provide a minimally acceptable level of funding. This will include efforts to update aging weapons systems and perhaps attempt to align funding with strategic priorities for disaster relief, maritime security and international peacekeeping.

A series of aircraft crashes during the past year underlines problems in maintenance and perhaps professional ability that can be improved through expanded military cooperation programs with friends such as Australia and the United States. During his November 2008 visit to Washington, Dr Yudhoyono called for establishment of a “comprehensive partnership” between Indonesia and the United States that includes expanded security cooperation, an initiative that the United States has embraced with enthusiasm across the board. Dr Yudhoyono can also be expected to step up advocacy of a more effective regional security apparatus in ASEAN and to expand Indonesia’s robust return to international peacekeeping operations.

Armed with a definitive electoral mandate and greater freedom to choose his cabinet and define his priorities, Dr Yudhoyono can be expected to move with confidence to bring Indonesia into a more visible international leadership role for himself, as well as for his country.

APDR at a glance