With four Muslim countries now splintered in armed conflict (Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen), the world can be grateful that the largest Muslim country will achieve a peaceful milestone Oct. 20. For the first time in its history, Indonesia will see a transfer of power from one popularly elected president to another: A humble former furniture maker, Joko Widodo, will take over from a former Army general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Mr. Widodo, otherwise known as Jokowi, was elected in large part because of a major reform 15 years ago after the popular ouster of a longtime dictator and the dawn of full democracy in this Southeast Asian nation. As the fourth most populous country – one that sprawls across 13,500 islands and includes 360 ethnic groups – Indonesia decided that the best democracy was one that defined the bonds of affections at the local level. Political power was greatly decentralized. Two-thirds of the civil service ended up in the provinces.
The reform enabled common folk like Jokowi to rise up, creating local models of clean and efficient government. His record, first in Solo and later in Jakarta, catapulted him to fame. In the national election, he beat Prabowo Subianto, the son-in-law of former dictator Suharto, who said Indonesians are not ready for direct democracy.
Decentralization’s real purpose was to keep Indonesia from flying apart. Separatist movements such as those in Aceh and Irian Jaya threatened to splinter the former Dutch colony. Instead of relying on strong-arm rule or imposing a nationalist ideology, such as exists in current China and Russia, Indonesia took the wiser course. It pushed many powers to the regions.
More than two dozen countries, representing nearly half of the world’s population, have such a federated system. In the United States, a 2013 Pew poll found people trust their state and local government far more than the one in Washington. The United Kingdom, after a close vote in Scotland against secession, is moving toward further devolution of powers. In diverse countries, democracy is the surest way to define the best level for political community.
Indonesia’s decentralization, however, has created a backlash among the political elite tied to the old Suharto regime. After Jokowi’s election, parliament passed a bill to end direct election of local leaders and grant that power to local assemblies, most of which are controlled by parties opposed to Jokowi.
The outgoing president has tried to stall the bill’s implementation. And the issue could end up in court. But at least the dispute is being handled in a democratic or judicial way. That’s way ahead of how most Muslim states in the Middle East handle their disputes.