Election marks Indonesian democracy's wobbly advance

The world's most populous Muslim country goes to the polls Thursday for the third time since 1998. Campaigning went smoothly, though old elites, corruption still thrive.

Voters in the world's most populous Muslim country go to the polls Thursday to elect a new parliament, the third chosen freely since the restoration of democracy in 1998. Across hundreds of islands infused with multiple faiths, cultures, and languages, 171 million people are eligible to vote at more than half a million polling stations.

Logistical snafus are weighing on election officials, as well as allegations of inflated voter rolls. A three-week campaign that ended Sunday generated more heat than light, as most parties offered feel-good platitudes rather than policies. Observers say apathy may hold down the turnout, not helped by a complex ballot that is organized by candidates, not parties.

Amid the muddle and the mud slinging, there is pride in the consolidation of a democracy that is already among the freest in Asia. Some voters are weary, though, of campaigns that promise more than they deliver.

"For the first few years after 1998, people had hope. After that, it's just become fighting between parties, and that's a turnoff," says Frans Darmadi, who runs a construction company in East Java.

However, the drifting attention of voters this time may actually be a sign of maturity, says Kevin O'Rourke, a political analyst in Jakarta. "The overall temperature of this election is way down compared to 2004 and especially 1999. It shows that democracy is here to stay. People don't see it as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go out and vote," he says.

Unlike Pakistan, Islamist militants here have failed to loosen the grip of Indonesia's secular centers of power, despite a wave of Al Qaeda-inspired bombings after 2000. After their upswing in the 2004 elections, Muslim-oriented parties have struggled to broaden their base and are falling behind in the polls.

Teeing up for presidential election

Indonesian voters are electing local and provincial legislatures. But the main prize for parties is the share of seats in the 560-seat national Parliament. The outcome will tee up a presidential election in July that is considered President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's to lose, given his popularity.

Presidential candidates must secure the nomination of a bloc of 20 percent of seats in Parliament, or 25 percent of the popular vote. In 2004, Mr. Yudhoyono's Democrat Party won only 7.5 percent of the seats and had to build a broad coalition that analysts say tempered his reform agenda. Opinion polls indicate that the Democrat Party likely will win the largest share in the new Parliament, giving it a freer hand to dictate terms on a presidential ticket and to push through new laws.

Neutered during the dictatorship of Suharto, who stepped down in 1998, Parliament has become a powerful counterweight to the executive branch. Under new rules, only parties that win at least 2.5 percent of the national vote will receive seats. This is expected to winnow the number of parties from 17 in the current Parliament, to nine or fewer.

Among those parties are secular and Islamic groupings that date back to the 1950s. Others are new vehicles for presidential hopefuls, two of them former Army generals who hope to emulate Yudhoyono, himself a retired general. But the Army's political power, which underpinned Mr. Suharto's New Order regime, is vastly diminished.

Old elites still overshadow new leaders

Old elites haven't been swept away by Indonesia's democratic upheaval, though. Suharto died last year, untouched by half-hearted judicial probes into abuses during his 32 years in power. The elites have adapted and managed to stall the emergence of new leaders, says Jeffrey Winters, a political scientist at Northwestern University in Chicago who studies Indonesia.

"Here we are, 11 years after the fall of Suharto, and everyone on the political stage is a New Order progeny," he says.

The collapse of the American-backed regime was triggered by an economic meltdown that reduced millions of people to penury. Today, Indonesia largely has been spared by a global recession, as it is less dependent on exports than its Asian neighbors are. Most voters say the economy is the key issue in the electoral race as well as the probity of those seeking to run it.

Corruption has cast a long shadow over Indonesia's democratic institutions. Since 2005, a string of high-profile arrests by a new anticorruption agency have chipped away at blatant graft in the parliament and in other public bodies.

Some voters disillusioned

Paradoxically, though, voters who follow such cases are losing faith in elections as they start to see all political parties as corrupt, says Ikrar Nusa Bhakti, a political analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences based in Jakarta. Disillusionment over the broken promises of politicians has even prompted nostalgia for the certainties of dictatorship.

"Some people in Indonesia still long for the Suharto period, when prices were low [and] they had political stability and security," he says.

Under Suharto, token elections were held regularly. But there was never any doubt that Golkar, the ruling party, would win comfortably. Two other parties were allowed to contest, in the knowledge that neither could win.

A troubling echo of such rigging surfaced in a January election for governor of East Java. The losing candidate's claim of fraud was echoed by a preliminary police report into hundreds of thousands of extra names on voter rolls. Opponents allege that the Democrat Party, whose candidate won the close contest, stole that election and may repeat the trick in other battleground provinces. Party officials have denied any involvement and say police are still investigating.

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