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A young democracy with over 192 million registered voters, Indonesia’s Ambassador Dr Rizal Sukma writes ahead of his country going to the polls

INDONESIA WILL HOLD general elections on the 17 April 2019. For many Indonesians, there is nothing new about general elections. Since the country gained independence on 17 August 1945, Indonesiahas organised 11 elections. Between 1971 and 1997, elections became a regular political event every five years. The upcoming elections, however, will be the fifth since Indonesia became a democracy in 1998.

Compared to previous elections, the elections this month present a unique challenge for Indonesia. For the first time in Indonesian history, voters will have to elect the president and vice-president, members of the House of Representative (DPR), Regional Representative Councils (DPD), provincial legislatures (DPRD Province), and district/city legislature (DPRD Kabupaten/Kota) all on the same day.

The logistical challenge is also daunting. Up to 192.8 million registered voters will go to over 800,000 polling stations across the country to cast their votes. There will be more than 300,000 candidates competing for more than 20,000 seats at provincial and district/city legislatures. At the national level alone, there are around 8,000 candidates representing 16 political parties competing for 575 parliamentary seats. More importantly, up to 40 per cent of eligible voters are young, (aged 17- to 35-years-old). Many of them will be first-time voters.

Most public attention, however, will be given to the presidential election, which will represent a ‘rematch’ of the 2014 election between the incumbent, President Joko Widodo, and his challenger Lieutenant General (ret) Prabowo Subianto, during which the former defeated the latter (53.15 to 46.85 per cent.) As the campaign progresses, pundits predict that the rematch will once again be a tight race between the two candidates. The competitive nature of Indonesia’s election, however, should be seen as an indication of the growing maturity of Indonesia’s democracy. The voters are free to make their political choice.

Indonesia’s electoral process is, of course, not perfect. Like many other democracies, Indonesia is also faced with the growing challenge of abuse and misuse of social media. Hoaxes and misinformation have become a problem that could undermine the quality of democracy in Indonesia. Undemocratic practices, such as black campaigns and manipulation of the facts can still be found in some quarters. While steps to address these problems have been taken by the government, political parties and civil society organisations, the challenge remains.

Although Indonesia is now the third largest democracy in the world, we are still working hard to sustain and refine our democracy. This is not an easy task, but despite the challenges, our democracy is moving forward and there is no turning back. Even though the world is now talking about the retreat of democracy, the bankruptcy of democracy, and even the death of democracy, we in Indonesia will continue to safeguard our democracy. Faith-based organisations and civil society groups continue to appeal for rationality and express voices of reason. The majority of Indonesians continue to see the merit of democracy.

It is also important to note that the Indonesian Defence Force (TNI), a key political actor before Indonesia became a democracy, has proved its commitment to reform, by continuing to disengage from practical politics. Since the military withdrew from politics in 1999, Indonesia’s elections have become democratically competitive. The parliament no longer allocates reserved seats for members of the military. Active members of the military are no longer allowed to get involved in politics. The military, therefore, has become a defence force with the primary duty of defending Indonesia.

We are confident that the elections will take place in a peaceful, democratic and fair manner for at least two main reasons. First, the people are sensible enough to see elections as a civic duty, not a struggle of life and death. Elections in Indonesia have become a normal political event every five years. It is an instrument through which the people express their political rights to choose their government and representative to govern the country. In fact, the majority of Indonesians regard elections as ‘a festival of democracy.’

Second, past elections suggest that people believe in the constitutional and legal mechanism to resolve election disputes. Whenever a dispute arises, the case is referred to the court. And, once the court rules, everyone abides by it. There is no reason to believe that the 2019 elections will be any different. Again, this is something that we in Indonesia are proud of. In a democracy, every citizen should come to the conclusion that a free and democratic election is ‘the only game in town,’ and stick to the view that violence would never resolve anything.

One area where improvement is clearly needed is the way the campaign is conducted. We need more emphasis on policy issues by the candidates. The contest should be more about the future direction of development and more about policy choices. The quality of elections, and therefore democracy, would greatly improve when voters are capable of making informed choices. Election campaigns should be about helping voters make those informed choices.

I believe that Indonesia is moving forward to refine and consolidate its democracy. The 2019 election is an important step in that direction. To all Indonesians, I wish you happy voting.



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