Behold Indonesia’s democratic beacon (Shawn W Crispin, 10/19/06, Asia Times)

Eight years after launching a highly ambitious political reform program, Indonesia has surprised many analysts and academics by how quickly and smoothly the world’s fourth-largest country has consolidated meaningful democratic gains. Indonesia has since 1998 overhauled every fundamental aspect of its former authoritarian state, including an amended constitution, a more powerful parliament and a reformed election system.

The country’s first-ever direct presidential elections in 2004, in which former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected on a strong reform ticket, represented a democratic high-water mark. What’s gone less noticed over that same period have been 250 or so different local-level elections, which are now contested down to the grassroots regent level.

Breaking with former strongman Suharto’s top-down New Order regime, Indonesia’s peripheral populations are now less captive to the interests and abuses of local political heavies, who under Suharto often inserted themselves as gatekeepers to financial and natural resources through central government authority. While many attempted to co-opt new democratic institutions to perpetuate their power, nearly 40% of local level incumbents have in recent years been booted from office at the ballot box.

In certain conflict-plagued regions, local democracy is even having a healing effect. According to a recent report in the Jakarta-based Van Zorge Report, head and vice head candidates, often representing respectively localities’ Muslim majority and Christian minority populations, have frequently teamed up to beat competing candidates who ran on a one-religion ticket. That is, local-level democracy is rewarding politicians who form religiously inclusive, not exclusive, coalitions. […]

[I]ndonesia’s extraordinary democratic progress has put the lie to academic debates about whether Islam and democracy can peacefully co-exist. Predictions that dismantling Suharto’s highly secular state institutions would lead to a coincident rise in Islamic fundamentalism have notably not panned out. Political parties that have campaigned on strict Islamic platforms fared poorly against more secular candidates at the 2004 parliamentary polls.

Fundamentalists elected on anti-corruption tickets that have since attempted to push Islamic-tinged legislation in parliament, including a controversial anti-pornography bill, have seen their popularity fall dramatically in public opinion polls.

It’s actually not in their best long term interest to keep a country of that size and diversity in one piece, but it is to devolve it slowly.

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