Known unknowns in Indonesia polls: what they mean for the region

opinion April 09, 2014 00:00

By Yang Razali Kassim

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Voters in Southeast Asia's largest economy make their mark today, with the outcome set to influence the future of Asean

When Indonesians elect their MPs today, followed three months later by a new president on July 9, their decisions will have a strong impact on the wider region. Given Indonesia’s pivotal position as Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, this is to be expected. 
But understanding the full implications of their electoral choices will not be easy as there are two “known unknowns” in the country’s latest power transition. The first concerns the new parliament. The second, the new president. Unless the picture becomes clearer towards the end of the year, a new government clouded by these twin ambiguities could mean quite a testy time ahead for the region. 
Known unknown I: parliament 
Kick-started in 1998 by the post-Suharto Reformasi campaign, Indonesia’s parliament has become increasingly independent of the presidency, at times even prone to chest-thumping, as if to make up for the three decades of authoritarian rule under Suharto. In the last parliament, such feisty posturing was at the expense of Indonesia’s neighbours. Asean’s failure to push through a proposed region-wide anti-haze law was met with truculence in the legislature, which refused to ratify a bill that all its neighbours had agreed upon. 
Underlying the defiance was a parliament that averse to being seen as dictated to by other countries, reflecting an increasing nationalistic pride. Will the new legislature be even more independent-minded and assertive, torpedoing the president’s bid to enter further national agreements with other countries? Will the Haze Pollution Bill finally be ratified by Jakarta so that Asean can implement its strategy to fight annual smog caused by burning of Indonesian forest? 
There is a larger question behind this growing nationalism: What will be the attitude of the new parliament towards the regional and international order? Will it be a team player, or will it be prone to ignoring the outside world? Just as importantly, will the new crop of MPs understand and appreciate the critical importance of regional and global concerns that affect not just Indonesians but also the wider Southeast Asia? These are not trivial questions given the region’s growing stress, such as from climate change and its multidimensional impact, as well as from growing regional volatility. 
An increasingly nationalistic legislature mirrors the underlying currents in Indonesian society. Singapore felt a direct impact when elements within the Indonesian defence establishment asserted their pride in Konfrontasi-era national heroes Usman and Harun, whom Singapore regarded as terrorists for their bombings of an Orchard Road building in 1965. Will the new MPs manage this trend, or ride on it? 
Known unknown II: the president 
There is also much not known about the presidential frontrunner, notwithstanding his huge popularity. In a growing democracy like Indonesia, an independent-minded parliament calls for a strong president who refuses to be overwhelmed by the legislature. A weak leader would not be able to get legislative support for his policies, spelling problems for the wider region. 
It is to avoid a weak presidency that the major Indonesian political parties are aiming to secure a victory big enough to form a government on their own, or at least a ruling coalition with the least number of partners. In the past, coalition-building in support of the ruling party has often led to unstable government. 
So which of the current presidential aspirants have the necessary qualities to be that strong leader? A slate of serious contenders have emerged – Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”), Aburizal Bakrie, Prabowo Subianto and Wiranto. 
Jokowi is leading in most opinion polls. 
While the populist-minded Jokowi is clear favourite, the substance of his leadership is beginning to be questioned. Critics are asking what Jokowi really stands for. What is his ideology? What is
his attitude towards existential and strategic issues of nation-building and Indonesia’s place in the international order? Does he have what it takes to be a leader who can command the regional and global stage to advance Indonesia’s role as an emerging regional power? 
Indeed, people around him are suggesting that should he emerge as president, he will be relying on his deputy to do the “heavy lifting”. But if he has to depend on his right-hand man to do his job, questions arise over his leadership capabilities. 
In contrast, Bakrie and Prabowo are known figures. Bakrie is a proven and respected business leader – one of the richest in Indonesia – who has earned his political stripes in Cabinet as well. Prabowo, as controversial as he is, is seen as and projects himself as a decisive and strong leader, having been a special-forces general in the past. Up to this point, Bakrie and Prabowo have offered clear manifestos of what they stand for. 
Jokowi, on the other hand, has been basking in his popularity. Yet, there is much about him that we don’t really know. To be fair, Jokowi may well have what it takes to be president. But he has to start articulating his vision, platform, strategies and programmes so that he can be fairly judged. Otherwise the next five years will not necessarily be better for Indonesia – or for the region. 
Yang Razali Kassim is a senior fellow with Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.