Effecting change in Indonesia

The Indonesian parliamentary election did not produce the decisive result observers believe is required for a hugely disparate country poised for take-off. Democracy is messy, and purists think a closely run election validates its practice. Indonesia is not yet, however, an economy or a democracy that has matured enough to withstand the corrosive effects of endless legislative fights and sectional interests pushing their agendas. Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono knew that well as the head of a choppy coalition of six parties. He delivered 5 per cent to 6 per cent growth for most of his tenure while solidifying a sense of Nusantara nationhood begun by Suharto. Yet, one could wonder how much further Indonesia could have moved as a transitioning economy had he had a freer hand.

That said, it is premature to judge the election as a setback to the pace and extent of institutional reform that remains to be done. Pervasive economic nationalism that impedes investment and foreign industrial expertise needs to be faced down. Fuel subsidies costing up to US$20 billion (S$25 billion) will drain the budget unless the president is confident reducing them will not raise inflation and ignite more riots. Infrastructure in urban centres has to be brought up to scratch, and transport links improved between the far-flung islands to stimulate economic activity. And it is no less a state function to recognise a link between sustainable growth and the conduct of good neighbourly relations.

It is preferable, of course, that the new president to be elected in July will have a good working relationship with Parliament to carry out a legislative programme that places the national interest above all else. Leading contender Joko Widodo's Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) did not see the surge expected from the so-called "Jokowi effect" and had to share the parliamentary spoils with Golkar and the Gerindra party, whose leaders would now also fancy their chances in the presidential election. Not only that, but Mr Aburizal Bakrie of Golkar and Gerindra's Mr Prabowo Subianto are also expecting a big say in framing state policy even if neither of them landed the presidency.

Mr Joko appears to be ahead of his rivals in coalition building. He has gained the support of the National Democrats, which will take him past the qualifying threshold to contest the presidency. This is not his real challenge. That will come in overcoming Golkar's resistance to making a deal, and provided he can persuade his own followers to work with a Suharto-era vehicle. Indonesia will benefit most as a nation on the move if key parties can work smoothly together. Mr Joko will need considerable political acumen to deliver on his message of change.