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Indonesian Elections Show Southeast Asia's Growing Democratic Strength  - 2004-09-22

Analysts in Southeast Asia have are praising Indonesia's elections, in which voters picked a president for the first time, as well as a national assembly and local councils. It was the latest of several elections in Southeast Asia in the past six months, and is seen as consolidating a trend toward democracy in the region.

More than 150 million voters went to the polls three times in six months in Indonesia. They cast ballots at more than half a million voting centers spread across three time zones on thousands of islands.

A specialist on civilian-military relations at Australia's University of New South Wales, Carl Thayer, calls this a considerable achievement.

"Indonesia is a vast developing country that's managed to pull off a massive series of elections this year, and to do so peacefully and to do so without major contestations about the election results," he said.

In the final round of voting Monday in Indonesia, former security chief Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono appears to have defeated incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri. It is the first time that Indonesians, who were ruled for more than three decades by military strongman Suharto, have directly elected their president.

Mr. Thayer says the elections are a major step forward in a democratic transition in Southeast Asia that began in the Philippines in 1986 with the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

"Since the Philippines got rid of Marcos, we've seen the emergence of one electoral democracy that's holding increasingly free and fair elections," said Mr. Thayer. "And we've seen the transitions toward democracy, and finally, in some cases, the consolidation."

In March, Malaysian voters retained the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whose party has led the country since the 1950s. And in the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo, who became president after the turbulent ouster of Joseph Estrada, gained greater legitimacy by winning national elections in May.

In Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who became president after the impeachment of Abdurrahman Wahid, also sought a mandate from the voters. But she was rejected.

Voters instead chose a retired general, who had pressed for a reduced role for the military in the government. Nevertheless, the candidacy of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono worried some pro-democracy activists, who believe it represented a step back to the military era.

The Indonesian elections, which took place in three stages in April, July and September, are a dramatic change in the country's politics.

Landry Subianto is an analyst with Jakarta's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"After this election, politics won't be the same because we are now witnessing the emergence of new political forces," said Mr. Subianto. "It means the political machinery is no longer that powerful."

He notes that most voters rejected the two parties that dominated Indonesian politics, despite their massive funds and well-organized party machinery. Voters turned instead to small, younger parties led by fresh faces.

Mr. Subianto says the declining influence of political parties over voters brought other changes.

"With the decay of political power, like parties, in every country, people tend to see the political figure, more than they rely on the formal political vehicle," he said.

He says voters are focusing on individuals as a form of reassurance, a kind of anchor, in uncertain times.

Analysts say voters appear be seeking leaders with strong qualities, such as leadership, integrity and a commitment to reform.

Mr. Subianto says this pattern was seen in the elections of Malaysia and the Philippines as well.

"The voters divided into two camps, the conservative one versus those who hope for change," he explained.

Carl Thayer of Australia's Defense Studies Forum says, most importantly, the trend toward greater democratization may spread to other nations.

"We've had Thailand move in that direction, Indonesia move in that direction, Philippines consolidate further, Mongolia. So these broader trends, the successful holding of elections in one country will have a synergy effect on others," said Mr. Thayer.

He says he hopes this will influence the nations in the region that have not adopted multiparty democracy, such as Vietnam, Laos and Burma.