SBY’s Aura of Election

DENPASAR, BALI, INDONESIA—The five candidates in the July 5 presidential election won’t address key issues or their own records honestly. Two hundred and twenty million Indonesians perched at the crossroad of reform, terrorism, poverty, and Islam need democracy to start producing results.

Six years after Gen. Suharto’s three decades of repression ended, Indonesia’s political culture and values remain virtually unchanged. Government office is a way to enrich yourself, friends, and family, not an obligation to the public.

At its present stage of reform, political practices are democratic but the political psyche is stuck in authoritarian mode. Indonesia gets the problems of both and benefits of neither. Corruption no longer greases the system, it chokes it. Voters still collect bribes from parties, but now they realize they can vote for whoever they want; more powerful interests can act with similar impunity and more dangerous consequences. If politicians can’t solve problems, Indonesia will likely turn again to the military, still the most powerful national institution, or to radical Islam in the world’s largest predominantly Muslim country.

Religious violence has killed thousands in Indonesia since 1998, from a string of church bombings on Christmas Eve 2000 to an anti-Christian jihad in the Malukus and Sulawesi to actions by Muslim separatist rebels in petroleum-rich Aceh. Politicians don’t discuss these extremist incidents, they just pander to the forces behind them. “There’s euphoria at having an Islamic identity after Suharto’s suppression,” University of Indonesia lecturer Gadis Arivia told me. “For fundamentalists, democracy is their revenge.” A cell-phone text-message campaign accuses presidential frontrunner Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of closet Christianity.

Every presidential ticket includes a representative from one of Indonesia’s two mass Muslim organizations that boast a combined membership of 75 million. Three tickets feature associates of former president Abdurrahman Wahid, known as Gus Dur (Javanese for “Handsome Lad”), who still embodies Indonesia’s moderate, liberal-Islamic tradition.

Chosen president by a divided electoral college in 1999 after his party got 11 percent of the vote, Wahid displayed a genuine enthusiasm for reform, along with a wit honed by years of badgering Suharto to the limits of official tolerance. As president, though, Wahid’s wisecracking failed to build coalitions or provide steady leadership. He was impeached in 2001.

Despite that, Wahid’s National Awakening Party finished third among 24 parties in April’s legislative voting, first among the Islamic parties that split more than one-third of the vote in 1999 and again in April. Even though Wahid is nearly blind from a series of diabetic strokes and was drawing single-digit support in presidential polls, Indonesia’s establishment feared him enough to belatedly create a vision requirement for presidential candidates and thus throw him off the ballot.

Sidelining Gus Dur breaks a key link between Islam and reform, silencing a clever liberal counterweight to radical Islam. (Wahid wound up following his party’s lead and endorsing Wiranto and running mate Solahuddin Wahid, a former national human rights commissioner and Gus Dur’s brother.) The remaining liberal Islamic party candidate is Upper House Speaker Amien Rais, a hero of the movement to oust Suharto, now better known for backroom deals than fronting for reform. Clearing out Wahid’s appealing moderate voice is particularly dangerous, because politicians disproportionately play to the fringes.

In this archipelago sprawling over an aread twice the size of the United States, people usually identify themselves by their regional or religious affiliation, and politicians strive to establish personal links to these disparate communities. “The campaign is all about expanding the network,” according to analyst Andi A. Mallarangeng. “Don’t be surprised if they meet with people from opposite ends of the spectrum.”

When politicians like Vice President Hamzah Haz and other mainstream Muslim leaders pay jailhouse visits to Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the alleged leader of terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, they declare their opposition to religious violence while embracing a leading proponent of it. It would be easier to dismiss photo ops with Ba’asyir as harmless posturing if Indonesia hadn’t already suffered thousands of deaths from religious violence.

Opinion polls indicate most voters are again ready for a leader with a military background, and each ticket except Megawati’s sports a former general, including presidential candidates Wiranto of Golkar and SBY. Analyst Mallarangeng, who left the small political party he helped found when it endorsed Wiranto, contends enthusiasm for men (recently) in uniform does not indicate nostalgia for authoritarianism or Suharto as much as rejection of current failures. “People want stability, jobs, security,” Mallarangeng says. “It’s not necessarily anti-democratic, but people long to feel someone is in charge.” But any president with strong military ties would likely continue to ignore the billions stolen and thousands killed under Suharto.

Polls released last week show SBY approaching the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a September runoff. But his Democratic Party won just 7.5 percent in April’s legislative elections and doubts persist about how well he can do without a strong network at the village level. Wiranto polls in the single digits and is rumored to have bought the Golkar nomination. But Suharto’s former ruling party combines national reach and massive resources, while Megawati’s party has the advantages of incumbency and reportedly even more money.

SBY answers all of the questions facing Indonesia—and none of them. His muscular unaccountability is a comfortable mix of acknowledging but refusing to confront problems, between change and stability. “Most Indonesians don’t care about programs,” Arivia observes. “They care about the figure. He’s got an aura about him.” So soon after the turmoil of 1998, Indonesia’s not looking for more hard decisions. This election doesn’t offer tough choices on key issues, just a promise of more tough times.