Indonesia's Big Day Out

In the midst of our own fiercely contested election, it’s important that we don’t miss the significance of what just took place in Indonesia. Indonesia’s first ever direct presidential elections were–according to all reports–an overwhelming success. That such a massive exercise in democracy (Indonesia has over 200 million people) was conducted so peacefully and efficiently is a huge achievement (US take note). Remember it was only seven years ago that Suharto was running the place, and in the intervening period Indonesia has had three pretty ordinary Presidents.

The result itself was no surprise. To anyone who had been paying any attention it was obvious that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (popularly known as SBY) was going to win. I was working in the north-eastern part of Indonesia at the beginning of this year and SBY was the hot favourite even back then. And when an incumbent polls as badly in the first round as Mega did, then the writing is well and truly on the wall! Nevertheless the breadth and depth of SBY’s victory is impressive.

So where to from here? Indonesian politics is notoriously difficult to read. There’s *always* more going on than you realize and anyone who claims to understand it all almost certainly doesn’t. So it’s difficult to make predictions. SBY is of course a general — with all that that means in Indonesia. But three cheers for him for not choosing the usual path (Golkar) and putting in some serious grassroots hardyards.

As everyone has noted, he has a huge job ahead of him. Who he turns to for advice will be critical. There are at least four different groups of advisors surrounding SBY, and even within those groups there are some big differences. SBY’s economic advisors for instance include both some good liberal economists, as well as some out and out protectionists. This will be one of his crucial early decisions. One of the most important things that Indonesia needs to do to spur development is to get its economy really humming again, but this time in a more equitable, sustainable, and open way. Mega barely scratched the surface when it came to reform.

Indonesia is in a crucial period of transition and what happens there is of enormous importance not just to Indonesia but to the region as a whole. One thing is for sure: whoever is elected here on 9 Oct should move quickly to establish a good relationship with SBY. Our relationship with Indonesia is hugely important, and–despite everything that Howard likes to say–Australian-Indonesian relations haven’t been much chop for some time now.

[Posted by David Madden]

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