Indonesia's Non-Issue

The elections in Indonesia have witnessed plenty of singing, but surprisingly little talk of terror...

This year's presidential elections in Indonesian are being hailed as historic because, among other things, they are the first in which the nation's leader will be directly elected. And the unexpected popularity of the "underdog" candidate, former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (known as SBY) -- who earned a first place finish in this week's first-round-of voting and will be up against incumbent Megawati Soekarnoputri in the September run-off -- has given the established parties a run for their money.

On the stump, the candidates stressed the need to fight corruption and create jobs. And they sang (a lot). And Megawati even implored voters to cast their ballot for the "most beautiful candidate." What the various presidential hopefuls didn't do much of, however, was talk about terrorism.

One big reason for this apparent oversith is that terrorism simply isn't a top concern for ordinary Indonesians. According to a survey by the Washington-based International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), only 0.7 percent of the eligible voters in Indonesia named terrorism as an issue that the candidates should address. By comparison, 33 percent cited battling corruption, while 27 percent said lowering inflation, and 17 percent job creation. Which is hardly surprising, given that some 40 million Indonesians are unemployed or underemployed.

It is among these poor voters, many of whom originally supported Megawati, that SBY has drawn his support. SBY finished with 33.42 percent of the vote, Megawati, 26.46 percent, and another former general, Wiranto, 22.29 percent.

Still, given that Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the terrorist group loosely linked to al-Qaeda, has undermined the country's economy by scarring away investors and foreigners in general, terrorism would seem to warrant much greater attention than it is currently receiving. In the 2002 Bali disco bombings, over 200 people, mostly foreigners were killed, and last summer's attack on Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, killed 12. The Indonesian government is quick to point out that it has arrested some 150 suspects, 3 of whom have been sentenced to death. But critics retort that the masterminds of the attacks have not been captured and that JI is far from feeling the full weight of government persecution. According to recent press reports, JI is changing its strategy from bombings of Western hangouts to targeted assassinations of Western diplomats and businessmen. As the Wall Street Journal (subscription) argues:

"The change in tactics by JI must be read as an indictment of the Indonesian government's feeble response to the threat of terrorism. President Megawati Sukarnoputri has failed to articulate a policy on radical Islam and a coherent set of measures against terrorism. The fact is, JI is changing tactics in order to be even more effective in sowing fear and terror, and not because it is feeling any increased heat from the government. In fact, Indonesia continues to be the one country in Southeast Asia where the militant group has been able to operate most effectively, and where it has been able to wreak the most damage…

True, with 220 million people spread out across the archipelago, few Indonesians are actually in any direct danger from terrorism. And in an election year, bread-and-butter issues usually land in the spotlight. Yet it is just as true that in Indonesia jobs and the economy also fall under the shadow of terrorism. A climate of fear makes foreign investors -- who also come from other parts of Southeast Asia and not just from the West -- more inclined to consider other places to set up shop. Data just released bear this out: Foreign investment approvals for January to May this year amounted to $2.5 billion, compared with $4.2 billion in the like period a year before."

The Indonesian government has been downplaying the possibility of attacks in the run-up to the September voting, but the U.S. government clearly sees them as likely. Last month, the State Department issued a warning urging that Americans "defer all non-essential travel to Indonesia," stating that "the Jemaah Islamiyah and other similar terrorist groups might use these elections as opportune occasions to conduct attacks."

Before being fired as the security minister, SBY was in charge of handling the Bali blast investigation, and is seen in the West as being the most experienced and most outspoken of the candidates on the country's terrorist threat. As sociologist Daniel Sparringa told AFP: Many try not to be too clear about the issue but the one that has been clear is SBY, and seen as the most firm…It doesn't mean they [the other candidates] don't have the commitment to fight terrorism but they try to put it more low-profile."

The Australian referred to SBY as the minister "who showed the greatest appreciation of the depths of the terrorist challenge in Indonesia" and "one of the very few ministers who could get things done." SBY served as the U.N.'s military observer in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 and was graduate student in the U.S.

While SBY served under the country's infamous dictator Suharto, including in East Timor, unlike Winatro, who has been indicted by U.N Criminal Tribunal for human rights violations in East Timor, similar allegations have not been mounted against him. Wiranto, who was expected to finish second, may try to dispute his third-place finish in court. Wiranto's campaign has argued that by counting millions of double punched (and hence invalid), election officials played into Magawati's hands, handing her provinces won by Winatro. Independent observers, however, note that the gap between the two candidates was too wide for those votes to have altered the outcome of the election.

SBY finished clearly in the lead, but his supporters had hoped (and pollsters bolstered that hope) that SBY would get a majority of votes in the first round, and avoid facing a run-off. The fact that the front-runner's lead has shrunk in recent weeks, may bode grimmer news ahead. SBY's novelty maybe wearing off and his embryonic party will have to contend with an well-oiled government machine ready to fork out bribes -- big and small -- to stay in power. Asia Times points out:

"One way to motivate voters is with money, something Golkar and PDI-P can dispense with far greater alacrity than Susilo's minions. The September 20 voting date also gives the contenders plenty of time to reload their war chests, ensuring that money can play a significant role in the campaign. Whichever party finishes second is likely to get the major slice of tycoon funding as a known quantity with a record of delivering the goods.

'A fast scan of the numbers indicates that [Susilo] did not do well among the undecideds,' says Kenneth Sherrill, professor of political science and department chair at New York's Hunter College. Initial support for Susilo appears to have been cinta monyet (monkey love, Indonesia's version of puppy love), which doesn't last. The more people look, the less they find.

Were he to face Megawati in a runoff, Susilo could lose much of the reform vote, while the political establishment would likely stick with the devil it knows. Golkar [Wiranto's Party] and PDI-P [Megawati's] Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle] cooperated to win Megawati the presidency in 2001 and have worked together comfortably since. Party pros eager to reassert their dominance after interloper Wiranto won the presidential nomination from insider Akbar Tanjung would gladly team up with Megawati for another five years of cozy accommodation rather than risk upheaval with a new president."

Regardless of whether SBY or Megawati ultimately wins, this election reaffirmed the country's secularism -- candidates espousing extreme interpretations of Islam fared badly. Vice-president Hamzah Haz who advocates shariah law and has said that the 9/11 attacks would "cleanse the sins of the U.S." managed to get only 3 percent of the vote. Megawati, has long been at odds with some of the country's clerics who object to a female running a country, but her latest appearances in a veil, are seen as a superficial attempts to appeal to the more conservative voters. SBY, meanwhile, has had, as the Washington Post notes, been a "target of rumors that he is anti-Islamic, the candidate of the Christians."

Speaking to reporters in Indonesia, former President Jimmy Carter called this week's elections "a wonderful transition from authoritarian rule to purely democratic rule in just six years and the people of Indonesia are to be congratulated." True, the elections occurred without major disturbances and Winatro's third-place finish may one day be remembered as the final nail in the coffin of Suharto's lingering influence over the country. However, the government is facing several separatist movements, which have resulted in bloodshed and will continue to do so, corruption and unemployment are widespread, and more terrorist attacks may hit the country before election day.

Sadly, the Indonesian government has shown little tolerance for criticism on the matter of terrorism in particular. Sidney Jones, an analyst for the think-tank International Crisis Group, has recently been kicked out of the country after issuing reports critical of the government's handling of extremist groups and separatist movements. As ICG's chief Gareth Evans put it: "To shoot the messenger doesn't say much for the state of political liberty in Indonesia under the Megawati government."