A new democratic player emerges

Posted in Broader Middle East | 06-Apr-04 | Author: Bo Asplund| Source: International Herald Tribune

Elections in Indonesia

JAKARTA - The world is facing an unusually active political year, with more than 80 national elections taking place, including 30 presidential contests. While the world watches the results in Japan and the United States, another major contest is gaining momentum. Indonesia, the largest Muslim society in the world, holds legislative elections on Monday and its first-ever direct presidential election in July. Seeing that this process goes smoothly has important worldwide security and economic implications. The world has a stake in seeing these elections go well.

Indonesia is a study in superlatives. This nation of 17,000 islands occupies a distinctive place in Asia. With its 234 million people, Indonesia has the world's fourth-largest population and the largest economy in Southeast Asia, with more than one-quarter of the region's total gross domestic product. It occupies strategic territory across key shipping routes linking Europe and the Middle East with most of Asia.

Indonesia's centrality also stems from its huge natural-resource base. Indonesia has the most diverse marine and terrestrial wildlife of any country on earth. Indonesia is also the largest natural-gas exporter in the world, with Japan, South Korea, the United States and China as major clients. It is Asia's only member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. These resources, and their potential for sustainable development, are important to the long-term future of the country, the region and indeed the world.

Despite being harder hit than its neighbors by the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, Indonesia's economy continues its steady recovery. The Jakarta stock exchange index has fully recovered from its slump in the aftermath of the crisis, and in the first quarter of 2004 it actually reached historic highs. This has been on the back of a steady and sustained reduction in the government's budget deficit. Record foreign exchange reserves have been built up, aided by a strong current-account surplus. This has stabilized the value of the currency, both in relation to the dollar and the euro.

What will these democratic elections mean in a developing country this large and this full of potential? For one, these elections mark an enormous democratic exercise. This will involve more than 5.2 million polling officials working in nearly 600,000 polling stations. These people will serve approximately 147 million eligible voters, the vast majority of whom are likely to cast a vote. The United Nations Development Program is working to support the Indonesian elections process, through direct work with the Indonesian General Elections Commission and nongovernmental organizations to support voter education and election monitoring. This is done with the knowledge that a stable and secure election will help usher in broader opportunities for the nation's development, and help strengthen political and economic stability across Southeast Asia.

Nevertheless, in some ways the Indonesian elections face more serious challenges. A sizable portion of the country's population continues to live in poverty, a fact that needs to be addressed by all candidates. Corruption is an ongoing challenge to the nation's political and economic system. The new national agenda to emerge from these elections must address these difficult issues.

Yet there is much to look forward to. The successful conduct of free and fair elections in Indonesia will bolster its still emerging democracy. This is one step in a broader process of bringing democracy, growth and development to all Indonesians. And a working, stable democracy in Indonesia will provide further evidence that, as so many Indonesians will tell you, Islam and democracy fit well together.

Indonesia's second democratic election since the fall in 1998 of General Suharto and his three decades of authoritarian rule will mark an important step in the country's ability to support security and stability in the region, and to realize further the economic and social dividends that will grow from that security.

A stable Indonesia under a democratically elected leadership, moreover, means a greater likelihood that Indonesia will protect and serve its own citizens, will foster more sustainable growth, and will increasingly be seen as an ally in the search for stability across Southeast Asia and around the world. For all of these reasons, Indonesia is the emerging democratic player to watch.

Bo Asplund is a UN Development Program resident representative in Indonesia.