Yang Razali Kassim for The Straits Times

High stakes for the region in Indonesia's polls

Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, the presidential candidate for the Indonesian Party of Struggle (PDIP). -- ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, the presidential candidate for the Indonesian Party of Struggle (PDIP). -- ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Indonesia's fourth legislative elections since the fall of strongman Suharto in 1998 have taken place without incident. The official results are expected only in May, but the contours of the new political landscape are already emerging. The two-step exercise - parliamentary followed by presidential elections - is likely to revolve around the new top three parties, the Indonesian Party of Struggle (PDIP), Golkar and the Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerinda).

Over the next three months, there will be intense political manoeuvring as they engage in coalition-building and deal-making with smaller players to achieve two simultaneous objectives: victory in the coming July presidential election, and the formation of a government supported by the majority of the incoming parliament.

Going by the quick count results, not a single party met the minimum threshold to earn the right to nominate a president, which means alliance-forming is inevitable - and with it, much political flux.

Indeed, the election outcome did not excite the local stock market. The Indonesian Composite Index dipped the day after the April 9 elections due to concerns that the ensuing coalition-building could lead to political uncertainty and affect investor sentiment.

Given Indonesia's pivotal position in Southeast Asia, this uncertainty may also impact the wider region over the next few months. A national leadership deeply involved in coalition building is likely to be inward-looking. Coming on the eve of the realisation of the Asean Community in 2015, this may not be helpful to regional integration.

Understanding the full implications of Indonesia's April 9 elections will not be straightforward either. There are two major "known unknowns" in the country's latest power transition. The first concerns the incoming parliament. The second is about the identity of the new president. These two factors will remain ambiguous for some time, at least until the new president is elected in July and officially sworn in in October.

In the post-Reformasi era, the Indonesian parliament has become increasingly independent of the Presidency, at times even prone to chest-thumping, as if to make up for the three decades of authoritarian rule under President Suharto.

In the last parliament, such behaviour came at the expense of Indonesia's neighbours. Asean's failure to push through a proposed region-wide anti-haze law, for example, was partly due to this. The legislature simply dragged its feet and refused to ratify the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, even though all other Asean members had done so.

Underlying this posture was a parliament that did not want to be seen as being dictated to by other countries, reflecting increasing nationalistic pride. Will the new legislature be even more independent-minded, and even more assertive, such that the next President will have a difficult time entering into agreements with other countries?

Will the Haze Pollution Agreement be ratified so that Asean can implement its haze-fighting strategy? The issue takes on extra urgency after Asean officials warned that this year's haze could be worse.

More broadly, what will be the attitude of the new parliament towards the regional and international order? Will it be a team player, or will it be prone to ignoring the outside world?

Will the new crop of lawmakers understand and appreciate the critical importance of regional and global concerns that affect not just Indonesians but also the wider Southeast Asian region? These are not trivial questions given the region's growing stresses associated with climate change and maritime territorial disputes.

The second known unknown concerns the next president. The candidates of the three leading parties are clear. They are the hugely popular Jakarta governor Joko Widodo or "Jokowi" for PDIP, businessman Aburizal Bakrie for Golkar and former amry Lieutenant General Prabowo Subianto for Gerinda.

In the direct presidential election in July, Mr Joko's huge popularity with voters will stand him in good stead. Yet, notwithstanding his star appeal, not much is known about him. What is his vision for Indonesia? How does he intend to get there?

Indeed, some people are suggesting that should he emerge as president, he will be relying on his deputy to do the heavy lifting.

On the other hand, Mr Bakrie and Mr Prabowo, while not as popular, are known quantities. Mr Bakrie is a proven business leader - in fact one of the richest in Indonesia - who has earned his stripes in Cabinet as well. Mr Prabowo, as controversial as he is, projects himself as and is seen as a strong and decisive leader, having been a special forces general in the past. Unlike Mr Joko, Mr Bakrie and Mr Prabowo have also offered clear manifestos of what they stand for.

Mr Joko has to start articulating his vision, platform, strategies and programmes so that he can be fairly judged. Otherwise the next five years will not necessarily be clearer for Indonesia - or for Asean and the rest of the world.

Regardless of who wins in July, the next president needs to lead Indonesia to retake its preeminent position in Southeast Asia. Such leadership is needed in the face of the growing uncertainty in the South China Sea and the wider East Asian region amidst a more assertive China. Will, or can, Mr Joko play this role?


The writer is a Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.