[OPINION] Indonesia Election – Victory for Democracy, with Global Significance

By Kim Joo-heon Posted : February 22, 2024, 17:24 Updated : February 22, 2024, 17:25
Arthur I Cyr
[Arthur I. Cyr]

[This article was contributed by Arthur I. Cyr, author of "After the Cold War -- American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia" (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He has taught at the Universities of Chicago and Illinois, Northwestern University, and Carthage College (Clausen Distinguished Professor).]

KENOSHA -- On February 14, major national elections took place in Indonesia. The results, especially in historic context, are a victory for democracy.

An enormous nation with an autocratic history has successfully held a peaceful election. Incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

According to “quick counts” from selected polling stations, the winner of the presidential contest is Prabowo Subianto, a retired army general and current defense minister. He received nearly 60 percent of the votes. Official results may not be known for up to a month, but the quick count system has proven a reliable indicator over time.

Subianto is a controversial figure. He has been accused of serious human rights violations in the 1990s, and was for a time banned from the United States. However, he has never been formally charged and has vehemently denied all such accusations.

Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy, and the largest nation with a Moslem majority. The election was the largest one-day free election in the world, with over 200 million participants. Indonesian citizens 17 years of age and older are eligible to participate, and turnout was high.

Geography as well as politics are complicated in this nation. Over 17,000 islands comprise national territory, including the large islands of Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi and parts of Borneo and New Guinea.

In 2018, a Gallup Poll found that an unprecedented 75 per cent of Indonesians believed elections are honest. This was the highest percentage ever, in a long-term upward trend in public confidence, following a troubled national history.

Gruesome earlier events provide graphic, important context. In May 2018, the Islamic State conducted bloody terrorist attacks in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city.

Terrorism is persistent though not frequent in Indonesia. In a 2016 attack, four people died. In 2002, the worst attack killed 202 people on Bali, including many foreign tourists.
Trade routes and commodities provide Indonesia with great strategic significance. Washington has the opportunity to highlight Indonesia, and neighboring nations, as success stories of expanding political stability, modernization and the rule of law.

In 1998, opponents forced Indonesia’s long-time autocratic president and former general Muhammad Suharto from power. Since then, the nation has had representative government. Dictatorship has ended, though corruption remains a problem.

During the height of the Cold War, Indonesia enjoyed status as a pivotal power among Third World nations. Flamboyant nationalist President Sukarno played the Soviet Union and the United States off against one another. CIA efforts to bring Sukarno down were frustrated, and boomeranged, especially in providing important impetus for Indonesia-Soviet cooperation.

During the 1960s, cooperation between Indonesia and the Soviet Union expanded exponentially. The Soviet and Indonesian navies were integrating their crews, and other close cooperation was taking place.

This development, vital in the massive U.S. military intervention in Vietnam in 1965, is rarely mentioned today.

British forces, with Australian and New Zealand allies, defeated Indonesian attacks on Malaysia. Earlier, Britain defeated an aggressive, virulent Communist insurgency in Malaya, which today is part of Malaysia.

Britain’s military avoided massive firepower, in contrast to the U.S. in Vietnam, especially from 1965. To be sure, the British military employed air strikes and artillery, but relatively selectively. Officials regarded heavy bombing as counterproductive. Given American preferences for firepower and technology, we should keep this fundamental lesson always in mind.

Freedom slowly expands in the world. Our veterans, especially of the Vietnam War, should feel pride in this long-term success.
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