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Indonesia's future in voters' hands

Published on Jul 9, 2014 7:29 AM
An armed Indonesian policeman watches as a worker carries ballot boxes for distribution to election centers, at the Commission on Election in Yogyakarta, central Java island on July 7, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

The man Indonesians choose as their new president today will have the gargantuan task of harnessing the energies of a boisterous, widely dispersed polity to reach the potential ascribed to it.

The front runner for much of the campaign, Mr Joko Widodo, is not beholden to any of the cloying patronage nests. It is a critical advantage in a society shedding the Suharto legacy. His critics have questioned his experience in public affairs and the substance of his campaign manifesto. But his admirers - including foreign investors - are pleased he does not sound like a strident economic nationalist.

His opponent, retired general Prabowo Subianto, has a military track record and is described as disciplined and someone who will chart a course and get things done. But his Suharto-era reputation and cosy ties to Jakarta's old power centres are not viewed favourably by some. His campaign themes have echoed with economic provincialism - not helpful when Indonesia is in need of capital.

Whoever the voters pick, the polls outcome will affect South-east Asia. The Indonesian economy is the region's fulcrum; if it prospers, Asean prospers. The new leader's handling of religion-tinged race and security issues will matter; any security mishap on the scale of the Bali incident will rebound on an Asean already wounded by retrograde happenings in Thailand.

The new president will begin his tenure with welcome advantages. Indonesia has got over its probation in democratic practice, for which outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono deserves credit. Where national unity used to be questioned, there is now no hint of secessionist tendencies in the outer islands. The country is respected in international councils like the Group of 20. It is courted by China, Japan and the United States in a new phase of the regional power play.

But it is competency in taking the economy forward that Indonesians would care most about in their new leader. The consulting group McKinsey's prediction in 2012 that Indonesia will be a Top 10 economy by 2030, surpassing Germany and Britain, was flattering but is dated now that the commodity boom is over and gaps in manufacturing investment have been exposed. These have to be filled to satisfy home consumption and meet the people's needs.

To draw investment from abroad and within, infrastructural developments, inter-island transport links and training of manpower have to be speeded up. The task will be eased if corruption, a creaking and venal bureaucracy, and laws hostile to foreign companies are not allowed to tie projects up in knots.

The agenda is daunting. If the people choose wisely, Indonesia will go one step closer to fulfilling its promise of being the newest power in the Asia-Pacific region. If a close finish results in turmoil, all bets are off.