By OOI KEE BENG
For THE EDGE MALAYSIA, 3 August 2014
The whole region held its breath as it waited for the final result of Indonesia’s fifth presidential election to be announced on 22 July, 2014.
Following exit polls done on election day on 9 July, both candidates had declared victory, and the tension worsened daily over the two weeks that it took to tally all the voting slips from almost half a million ballot boxes spread over the archipelago. It certainly did not help that Prabowo Subianto, whom the initial counts had suggested to be the loser, was showing serious signs of being a very sore loser.
In the end, things turned out alright. In passing this nail-biting test so gallantly, Indonesia enters a new era, and hopefully Southeast Asia in general will be inspired by this. Joko Widodo’s victory marks the rise of a new kind of politician in Indonesia, one who has not directly risen from within the country’s powerful oligarchic structure. It remains of course to be seen how this new kind of leader will succeed in generating a new and more open political culture in the country.
On the other side of the fence, we have Prabowo, the son-in-law of former long-time dictator Suharto and a former military man of dubious reputation. In contrast to Jokowi, Prabowo personify the old system where power has been exclusive to certain families and social circles. His refusal of admit electoral defeat, and his sulky protestations against, first Jokowi, then the electoral system and by implication President Yudhoyono himself who had supported him in the campaign, only cast him even more as a symbol of the old political culture protesting as it fades away.
Of course, the old does not fade away that easily, and will return to fight another day in another form, but a tipping point may very well have been reached through Jokowi’s victory.
The drama in Indonesia can be significantly perceived within the broader context of Southeast Asian democracy. The region, couched in terms of ASEAN community building, has been developing impressively over the years in security and economic terms. By housing all countries found between China, India and Australia under one roof (excepting East Timor for now), opportunities for diplomatic dialogue and economic growth, and an atmosphere of cultural understanding and political restraint have been created.
This achievement should not be overlooked.
But what events in Jakarta in July remind us of is the unwillingness of power-holders in Southeast Asia to accept defeat at the polls. Should Jokowi be sworn in later this year without Prabowo being able to cause havoc, and the signs presently point to that, then a new political culture may spread.
The lesson to learn for future power-seekers is that being defeated in democratic elections is not an insufferable disgrace, and accepting such a defeat is in fact very becoming of a mature leader.
What Indonesia has also put in place, and it should be strongly complimented for it, is a comprehensive electoral system aimed at attaining a transparent procedural democracy. No substantive democracy is possible unless the structure for fair elections is first realised.
In fact, the struggle in Thailand which led to the military there taking over power in May is often presented as a problem of democratic procedure. With pro-Thaksin forces winning an unbroken series of elections, anti-Thaksin forces in desperation decided to reset the democratic system. At the time of writing, the military regime is trying to work out an electoral system that cannot, in their view, be easily hijacked by populist forces.
South of the border in Malaysia, since 2007, much of the political battles, before Islamism stole the limelight after the May 2013 elections, had been about electoral reforms. Concurrent with that, governance issues and systemic reforms became the main points of contention across the coalitional divide. The fact that the opposition won the popular vote in May 2013 and yet failed to take power at the federal level badly weakened the legitimacy of the government.
The present standstill in Malaysia has also increased the use of by-elections as tactical possibilities, adding to the common understanding that the country suffers from excessive politicking, which in turn is an indubitable expression of procedural weaknesses in the system. The continuing success of secular democracy in Indonesia can potentially dampen Islamist vigour in Malaysia.
To Thailand’s east, in Cambodia, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) finally agreed in late July to participate in the national assembly after a year-long parliamentary deadlock. This was on condition that the National Electoral Commission, accused by the party for electoral rigging, is to be thoroughly reformed. The absence of reliable electoral rolls and other guarantees against electoral fraud, amongst other issues, were what had led to the extended dispute.
To the west of Thailand lies Myanmar, who is eagerly awaiting elections in 2015. After almost three decades of military rule, demonstrations broke out in 1988 which were violently suppressed. Two years later, multi-party elections were held. An impressive turnout of 72.6% of the voter population gave Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy 80% of the seats. The military refused to accept the results, however, and continued to rule the country with an iron hand, until 2011 when the present reform process began. How the results of next year’s elections will be accepted remains to be seen.
Democracy in Southeast Asia is indeed at a crossroads, and with regional economic integration on the way, more respect for voting results is to be expected from power-seekers. Jokowi’s victory thus carries great implications for how democracies are to develop in Indonesia’s neighbourhood.
OOI KEE BENG is the Deputy Director of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). His recent writings can be accessed at wikibeng.com.