Indonesia and Democracy

Charles Horner

On June 7, Indonesia became the world's third largest democracy, its 210 million people standing behind only India and the United States. For the first time since 1955, the country conducted a nation-wide, free and unfettered election, without restrictions on either the domestic or foreign press, under the scrutiny of some 200,000 citizen-poll watchers drawn almost wholly from the university-based opposition to the old regime, and under the jaundiced gaze of 579 officially-recognized foreign observers of various political persuasions. Among us Americans, the best known was former President Jimmy Carter. The campaigning had been unexpectly peaceful and the confidence in the organization of the polling among the 115 million who voted was high enough that even the excruciating slowness in tabulating the votes – only about half had been counted over the course of the ensuing two weeks – seemed not to disturb the era of good feeling the election produced.

Last year, the thirty-two year old rule of President Suharto was toppled in the wake of the Asian economic collapse that began in mid-1997. Suharto's hand-picked successor in the Golkar Party, B. J. Habibie (whose intellect is not widely respected, though he actually is a rocket scientist by profession), ended press censorship and encouraged planning for a free election, and has stuck with the program, even as it now threatens his tenure and that of his cohort. The devil, however, is in the complicated details of the transitional system. What has been created is a kind of electoral college, most of whose members were elected on June 7, but of whom many will be included ex officio or otherwise designated. These people will elect the next President and endorse what promises to be a large and unwieldy cabinet.

The leading vote getter, with about thirty-five percent, turned out to be Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the nation's often self-styled George Washington. Hence, Megawati, as she is known, will need to fashion a coalition. The party in second place, Islamic (though not extreme), appears to be winning about twelve percent. The results then trail off rapidly, making combinations possible.

And in fact, it is both theoretically and legally possible for the discredited ruling party of the moment, the Golkar Party, to cobble together a majority of the electors, though now winning only twenty percent support in its own name. Presumably, it will then have to call upon the thinly-stretched army (which number only about 400,000, and in an archipelago that spans about 3,000 miles) to save it from the citizenry. Thus the Indonesians' democracy – if they can keep it.

Nevertheless, a foreign observer could not but note the absence of the paranoia and xenophobia for which Indonesia's modern history had prepared him. "Foreign manipulation" of any kind was not raised as a campaign issue, as both government and opposition alike sought the imprimatur and the reassurance of international approval.

But given the potentially enormous implications of a free election of this kind, one must worry about the focus and staying power of the American conservative political community, once the undaunted adherents of the world-transforming outlook of President Reagan. Our New World Order of democratic self-government and the rule of law is overwhelmingly of his making; think of the situation in Indonesia and the rest of Asia, post-1997, if there were still a Soviet Union (or even a genuinely disruptive China) interested in fomenting bitterness and breakdown to advance anti-American interests.

Just as we associate the founding of the U.S. Information Agency with President Eisenhower and the Peace Corps with President Kennedy as the representative foreign affairs agencies of their eras, we should properly think of the National Endowment for Democracy as the representative creation of the Reagan Presidency. But its Republican component, the International Republican Institute, had a too-small force on the ground in Jakarta – though it did a lot with what it had. There is more to Republican near-invisibility than the ceding of bragging rights to liberals about who deserves the credit for the great turn toward us in the world. It is more than symbolic, for it confirms a serious deterioration in political understanding, especially in comprehending the relationship between what happens to the United States and what happens in the world.

For example, we ought to pay close attention when the world's most populous Muslim country shows itself capable of democratic decision making. Similarly, though we are properly focused on East Asia, the British-derived democracies of South Asia – the enduring one in India and the intermittently exasperating ones in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka – include more than a billion people. We congratulate ourselves because we think we have detected some world-historic strategic trend after carefully counting China's two dozen missiles. The military balance matters a great deal, but it is not the only balance that matters, and certainly not only one that should matter to the party of Reagan.Charles Horner is Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute. He was Associate Director of the United States Information Agency during the Reagan Administration.