A Victory for Mainstream Politics in Indonesia

May 2009

Organising elections in huge countries like India and Indonesia is a logistical nightmare. Both countries held general elections in April, which proceeded relatively peacefully despite the many flaws. Although it is widely accepted that holding general elections is the easiest part of the democratic process, Indonesia is today regarded as the third largest democracy in the world. It is only ten years since it shook itself free of a 32-year authoritarian regime and rejoined the ranks of the world’s democratic regimes.

Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world with no fewer than 17,000 islands and a population of 232 million. Although there were 171 million registered voters, the number of people who cast their votes on 9 April was 104 million, a 61 percent turnout as compared to 84 percent in 2004 and an even higher percentage in 1999. No fewer than 67 million people failed to vote for one reason or another. Another worrying feature was the huge number of 17 million invalid votes.

It is generally accepted that the General Elections Commission (KPU) performed woefully in its compilation of voter lists and failed to ensure that voters were properly informed about voting procedures. That was especially important given the large number of parties contesting for seats and the fact that voters cast votes not only for the national parliament but also for a regional representatives council and provincial and district assemblies. For the first time, voters were required to mark their choice with a tick instead of piercing the ballot paper, a change that might have confused people not accustomed to using a pencil or pen.

The results

The clear victor of the 2009 elections was Partai Demokrat, the party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). This came as no surprise. Numerous opinion polls had given the incumbent president a commanding lead in popularity ratings. His victory in the 2004 elections had been solid. In many ways his presidency was by no means an easy ride. During the past four years, Indonesia has been hit by a number of severe natural disasters, starting with the devastating tsunami in Aceh and Nias in December 2004. Then in May 2006, a massive mudflow hit East Java killing many people and rendering unusable thousands of hectares of land. Thousands of peasant families are still suffering the effects of inadequate compensation for the mudflow caused by drilling for gas by a company whose owner was a prominent member of SBY’s government. There was also a serious earthquake in Yogyakarta, Central Java two years ago. To make matters worse, the country’s economy has been badly affected by the global economic meltdown, the first effects of which were felt in April 2008, hitting the level of exports. However, the President’s popularity has not been affected by these problems.

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