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No easy ride ahead for Indonesia's Widodo

A triumph for democracy now faces the daunting challenges of corruption, poverty and grudging foes

Electoral victory is beautiful, and democracy in Indonesia, the region's most populous nation, is taking better shape after the presidential poll won by Jakarta Governor Joko "Jokowi" Widodo.

Indonesia's democracy is relatively young, but its citizens - long used to living under authoritarian rule - showed that they have broader freedoms in mind.

In terms of social structural, Indonesia remains burdened along with Myanmar and Thailand under the weight of the military, which continues to exercise a strong influence in politics, while bureaucratic red tape mires daily governance. Most politicians are corruptible and inefficient.

But the voters have demonstrated patience in prodding the country along on its democratic path.

This is why the international community has been full of praise for Indonesia for its political development since the end of the Suharto regime in 1998. Its citizens' faith in democracy has brought the country much good. Foreign investors are more confident in its governing system and looking at the long term. Indonesia's position in the world's eyes is now stable enough that its fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations must accept it as their de facto leader.

However, Widodo cannot simply enjoy his presidency. He faces a multitude of challenges amid continuing efforts to reform the government, nurture democracy and guarantee sustainable development.

At the outset, his rival in the presidential election, Prabowo Subianto, continues to contest the close polling results in court. If the court finds any hint of irregularities, there could still be a fresh election.

Secondly, Widodo is the first president to come from outside the military and the bureaucracy. As in Thailand and Myanmar, these two elite bodies yield power to outsiders only grudgingly and can be expected to place obstacles in his way. They do not share his faith in widespread public freedoms and could become overtly obstructive.

Meanwhile Indonesian bureaucracy is an ornate web of red tape and corruption is common. Widodo's grand plans for change might well fall to the wayside, his campaign promises to voters dashed, just as happened to US President Barack Obama.

Thirdly, Widodo currently has control of fewer seats in parliament than his opponents. Many are likely to jump ship soon and rally to his side, but the scourge of corruption will surely take its toll when the policymakers' votes are needed. Parliament is widely acknowledged as one of Indonesia's most corrupt public institutions. Pushing through legislation is always an uphill task.

Fourthly, even as foreign investors' interest in Indonesia perks up in the wake of the election, the economy is not yet robust, and poverty remains a key challenge. Roughly half of the country's 250 million people live below the poverty line, and efforts in recent years to improve their status have all fallen short. There is, too, that affliction shared with most countries of the world - the widening gap between the wealthy and the underprivileged.

Lastly there is a problem with which Widodo must grapple in his own political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle. A worrying question mark hangs over his ability, despite his popularity among the electorate, to control the party itself.

Former president Megawati Sukarnoputri leads the party and retains the loyalty of many of its MPs. She could well be Widodo's "puppet master", and as such either guide him to success or straight to disaster. The counteroffensive to any such manipulation would be the fact that Megawati's 2001-04 presidency was tainted, not least by accusations of being indecisive and incapable of running the country. These are not epithets the new president wants to inherit - or needs to if his keeps his eye on the goals enshrined in his election triumph.


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