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Indonesia’s Presidential Election: History in the Making

July 7, 2009

Televised debates have been held, the campaigning has concluded, and Indonesians will vote for their president today. In the country’s more than 60 years since independence, this is only the second time that Indonesians have voted for their president. The country’s first two presidents, Sukarno and Suharto, held office for 23 and 32 years, respectively. Presidents Habibie, Abdurrachman Wahid, and Megawati Sukarnoputri followed Suharto after his downfall in 1998 and, like their predecessors, none of these presidents was elected directly by the Indonesian people. It was only in 2004, following constitutional changes, that Indonesians finally secured the right to vote for their president. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – popularly known by his initials: SBY – won that historic election, and is now running for his second and final term. If SBY succeeds, he would be the first incumbent president to win a second term through a democratic election and his victory would highlight the maturity of Indonesia’s democracy.

And most likely, SBY will win. According to the latest national poll, support for SBY had declined by four percent, yet he still enjoys a massive 63 percent popularity rating. By contrast, former President Megawati, his closest challenger, received less than 19 percent. With such a huge gap between Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his rivals, the question floating around the world’s fourth most populous country is not so much who will win, but whether or not the incumbent can secure his second term in a single round. If the vote tally reveals that a candidate has secured the required 50 percent, Indonesians will not need to vote in a run-off in September.

After a year of on-going legislative and presidential campaigning, many voters would prefer this election to be won in one round. “Let’s get this over with, and move on,” a friend told me yesterday. Another friend’s Facebook status read, “I want Election Day to come soon so we won’t have to hear about it anymore.” Many Indonesians have expressed a sense of election fatigue, having recently been through the tumult of local elections, April’s national legislative elections, and now the presidential campaign. The campaigns, debates, and constant news coverage – and, for those of us living in cities and urban centers, the traffic caused by street campaigning – have become almost unbearable. SBY’s supporters are capitalizing on this sentiment, and are pushing it even further by suggesting that one round is more economical. “Vote for the incumbent, and the country will save some money” his supporters say.

Not everyone agrees, of course. This issue was directly taken up by one of SBY’s challengers, Jusuf Kalla, who is currently the president’s own vice-president, during the final televised debate. The claim by the incumbent’s team that they will only need one round to secure a victory is perceived as arrogant by many.

But most Indonesians feel that SBY’s likely victory is not about arrogance, election fatigue, or being economical. Instead, it’s about the high approval rating Indonesians have given the government for over six months. SBY’s numbers are nothing short of robust. Various polls have shown him to be in the lead since late 2008, and most Indonesians surveyed think that whether this election goes to one round or two, SBY will remain in office.

To grasp the significance of this, one should understand the context of Indonesia’s elections, where people are unlikely to vote for incumbents. In the recent local elections for governors and mayors, more than 40 percent of incumbents had to pack their bags and leave office after one term. And in the April 2009 legislative elections, more than 60 percent of legislators were voted out of office. Indonesians have clearly used elections to reward, and punish, politicians. We may not always end up with better leaders, but the underlying message is clear: if we do not think you deliver, you will be voted out.

If the opinion polls prove correct, Indonesian voters will have sent a strong message to the incumbent that they want to see more of the same. The linkages between approval ratings and the government’s pro-poor policies are clear. For example, in response to increased fuel prices last year, the government provided aid for the poor. Following this the president’s ratings improved, reflecting widespread approval of the policy. It may not be too far-fetched to say that voters credited the president for the benefit they have received from the government’s policies. It seems that, contrary to the views of many political pundits who portray Indonesian voters as being traditional and primordial, the SBY phenomenon may demonstrate that Indonesian voters do in fact make rational decisions based on what they perceive the government has done for them.

In that context, if SBY wins his second term, his victory will show the amazing levels of support the Indonesian people have for their president. The next question is: how will SBY use his popularity to make tough decisions in the challenging times ahead? During his campaign, he promised he would lead this complex and diverse country through the current global economic crisis. But what exactly does this mean? Will Indonesia see more – and faster – reform? SBY’s choices for cabinet positions will provide hints to some of these questions but, for now, let us see if indeed Indonesians make history in today’s presidential election.

Sandra Hamid is The Asia Foundation’s Senior Director of Programs in Indonesia. She can be reached at sandrahamid@tafindo.org.

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