Indonesian Elections: Dreaming of Gajah Mada in a Modern Democracy

Farish A. Noor

Posted Apr 15, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Indonesian Elections: Dreaming of Gajah Mada in a Modern Democracy

By Farish A. Noor

While doing fieldwork on the island of Madura last week, I stopped for a while to do one of those necessary things we all need to do sooner or later: get a haircut. My colleague and fellow academic Toharudin and I stopped by a small, somewhat forlorn barber’s shop in Sumenep and set down on the rickety chairs as we were shaved and made to look semi-civilised at least.

In due course, the conversation with the barber turned to politics and the recent elections of 9th April. Pak Sulis, the barber, opined thus: “I am happy that the Partai Demokrat (Democratic Party) won the highest number of votes for the Parliamentary elections, and I hope SBY (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) will be elected as the President. He has done so much for the country: brought peace to Aceh, fought against corruption, and he needs another term to consolidate and build the country further. We need continuity now; the five years after the fall of Suharto were too traumatic for people like me.”

Pak Sulis’ opinion was matched by the electorate who gave the Partai Demokrat the highest number of votes and consequently seats at the recent elections. But what was interesting for me was how this man - who admitted that he was semi-literate and whose education stopped at the age of 11 - was more concerned about actual political results than empty rhetoric. Pak Sulis, like millions of ordinary Indonesians, want to see their democracy succeed. And to make their point the Indonesian people voted for the three main parties whose ideologies were secular, nationalist and development-oriented. All in all the sectarian nationalist parties and the Islamic parties that were seen as being religiously sectarian were ousted.

For analysts like Dr Mohamad Nur Ichwan of Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University in Jogjakarta, the results were clear: “The electorate has shown that the Islamic parties cannot win simply by talking about Shariah and making sectarian claims for Muslims alone.”

Indonesia, which had for too long been run down in the international press as a country tottering on the verge of collapse and diagnosed as a failed state, has made a comeback in no uncertain terms. While the governments of other ASEAN countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Burma/Myanmar continue down the path of measured authoritarianism, with dominant strongmen like Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew still pulling the strings, Indonesians have taken their fate into their own hands and said goodbye to the bad old days of military-backed, iron-fisted authoritarian rule.

The secret of Indonesia’s success is that this is a nation that was willing to give democracy a chance. Successive Indonesian leaders made their share of mistakes, but they also helped to pave the way for the reform process we see today. In particular some credit has to go to Abdurrahman Wahid (popularly known as Gus Dur) for removing senior army leaders like General Wiranto from cabinet, and crucially, opening up the public domain for debate. Gus Dur also performed the landmark gesture of fully and unreservedly acknowledging the place and role of the Chinese minority in Indonesia and insisting that they were fully-fledged Indonesians; thereby reversing decades of anti-Chinese racism that had become normalised during the Suharto era.

Pak Sulis’ love for President Yudhoyono, however, betrays the Indonesians’ love for their country and their past. “You know why I like him so much? He is like the great Prime Minister Gajah Mada during the glorious days of the Majapahit kingdom. The man is huge, tall, proud but soft-spoken, polite and well-mannered. He has never uttered a racist remark, never hurt the feelings of anyone. A true gentleman that we need.” Indeed, Yudhoyono’s political campaign was singularly free of all scandal, abuse or insults against his competitors.

Perhaps in the end this is what a mature democracy looks and feels like; where people can vote freely and live in a country with a free press and open society without fear of being attacked or arrested according to the whim of a despot. The other leaders of ASEAN should take note, and give Indonesia the respect it deserves. For in this corner of Southeast Asia at least, democracy is growing fast and will blossom soon.