By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser & Director, CSIS Southeast Asia Program
There is near unanimous agreement that Indonesian democracy is one of the most remarkable accomplishments in the region in the last two decades. The turn the giant country made from autocracy under Soeharto to one man-one vote is truly breathtaking and has transformed the country. However, Jakarta is well aware that democracy is not a goal that is won easily, nor can the country rest on its laurels for having achieved the historical accomplishment. Indeed, Indonesians can learn an important lesson from their colleagues in Thailand. Namely, strengthen the institutions of democracy when you have the opportunity, and don’t wait until crisis comes knocking.
During the Cold War, Southeast Asia was led by a handful of autocratic strong leaders – Soeharto, Mahathir, Marcos, Lee Kuan Yew and arguably the King of Thailand — who all benefited from the Cold War dynamic which supported leaders who could, even in the most Machiavellian ways, control their politics, societies and economies. These men were very successful in that mission and transformed their countries from post-colonial commodity based economies into Asia’s newly developed “tigers”. Foreign investment poured in, infrastructure was built and countries were brought into the modern era.
Unfortunately, what didn’t happen during that period, in most cases anyway, was the development of institutions which would underpin the eventual democratic evolution that was coming in some form or another for all these countries. Indeed, such institutions where undercut or subjugated to support autocratic rule and maintain the status quo. As the region’s strongmen left the stage in different ways, more political space was created and democratic reforms put into place. Thailand made a transition to pulling the military out of direct involvement in politics in the early 1990’s — not without some serious violence and strife — and instituted a new constitution.
However, as the horrifying events in Bangkok earlier this year proved, Thailand’s institutions — such as the courts and the electoral commission, to name only a few — were not developed enough and had not earned the independence and trust of the Thai people — to adjudicate the conflicting views and actions of partisans with serious issues that needed to be resolved to avoid violent conflict and crisis. In fact, had a hundred or more of the new automated voting machines used in the May elections in the Philippines failed to function, and had candidate Aquino, who had what appeared to be an insurmountable lead according to polls before the election not won with a definable margin, his supporters, dressed in yellow, were poised to take to the streets all around the country. There was a complex and well coordinated plan to execute this action in fact, due to Filipinos mistrust and suspicions of their own electoral processes.
Fast forward to the next Indonesian elections in 2014. What if the candidates competing for President at that time run a very close and disputed race. Are Indonesia’s courts and electoral bodies prepared for that situation? Indonesia is very fortunate that President Yuhoyono won the 2009 elections with such a mandate (just as the Philippines was lucky that President Aquino won indisputably). The question is in 2014, what if the race is close. What if certain candidates have access to sources of hard power — either coming from the military or having access to fortunes from private business? This is a serious question for Indonesian leader and civil society to consider.
Perhaps now is the right time to invest in strengthening key democratic institutions in Indonesia, and indeed around the region, so that if a test comes in the national elections in 2014 or in other ways that can’t be predicted, they can protect the veracity of Indonesia’s nascent democracy and the rights of its deserving citizens and avoid the bloodshed that Thais have sadly endured. Indonesia will do well to learn the hard lesson Thailand has shared.