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A test for Southeast Asia's model democracy

Indonesia goes to the polls to elect a president tomorrow

Indonesia gets another chance to test the depth of its democratic roots this week when millions of voters in Southeast Asia's biggest democracy cast their ballots for a new president.

The country of 240 million people was a dictatorship until 1998, when the Suharto regime finally collapsed. Indonesian democracy is thus relatively young, but it rests on strong foundations laid down over the past decade and a half.

Indonesian politicians are reputedly just as much given to corruption as their counterparts elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but the voters have maintained faith in elections as the method of selecting their leaders.

Over the past 16 years, Indonesians have seen a diverse array take the post of president: male and female, layman and cleric, good and bad. But, whatever their background and actions, once in office they have been allowed to finish their term in office as mandated by the voters.

The two front-runners in the current race for the presidency are Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, better known as "Jokowi", and former army general Prabowo Subianto. Their backgrounds are neither perfect nor absolutely "clean".

Jokowi has faced no allegations of outright corruption, but he has been linked with suspect business cronies. He enjoys a good record running the capital, but many say he is politically naïve, while his foreign policy is still largely a mystery.

Prabowo suffers from just as many shortcomings. His record on human rights is tainted by his close connection with late dictator Suharto. People still remember the bloody crackdown he ordered in East Timor during the uprising their against Suharto, his mentor. Prabowo is also said to be a master of "money politics".

Like its politicians, Indonesian election campaigns are no cleaner than those seen in its regional neighbours. Smear tactics and bribes are common. Jokowi has been accused of being "Christian Chinese" in a blatant bid to encourage large sections of the electorate to see him as an outsider.

The stakes are high, but months of campaigning have brought no reports of serious violence. The police and security forces have been handed the job of maintaining law and order during the run-up to the poll, with the military kept firmly away from politics.

Indonesia's military is just as tough as its counterparts elsewhere in Southeast Asia. It has the firepower to stage a coup, but it has declined to intervene directly since the waning of its influence in politics nearly two decades ago.

The commitment to democracy means that the generals have been discouraged from taking political sides for nearly two decades, again since Suharto was ousted.

Indonesia's Constitutional Court issued a ruling late last month confirming that military and police personnel were ineligible to vote in the presidential election.

Prabowo is a former general, and the military has been closely monitored to ensure it doesn't use its influence or force to secure his victory. The top brass has to prove it's dedicated to its duties - which means staying away from politics. Election authorities are investigating allegations of military involvement in the election. The signs are positive that the election will be safeguarded and that democracy will continue to strengthen so that the government and its leaders genuinely reflect the will of the people.


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