President Barack Obama’s quick congratulation for Indonesia’s election victor Joko Widodo, even as the losing candidate rejected the result, underscores Washington’s intent to deepen ties with Jakarta and support democracy in Southeast Asia.
A peaceful transfer of power in Indonesia would buck a worrying trend in a region marred by flawed elections and military meddling. It would also show that democracy thrives in the country with the world’s largest Muslim population.
Over the past year, there have been disputed elections in Malaysia and Cambodia, where this week the opposition agreed to end a parliamentary boycott. Thailand, once an example of democratic progress, is facing its most repressive period of military rule in decades. Authoritarian governments prevail in Laos and Vietnam, and reforms seem to be stalling in former pariah state Myanmar.
Political change has been comparatively smooth in Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, over the past decade and a half. The emergence of Widodo appears to reflect how far it has come since popular protests ended the 30-year rule of former dictator Suharto in 1998.
Widodo, the 53-year-old Jakarta governor, was the first candidate in a direct presidential election without ties to Suharto. He won by 8 million votes, or 6 percent, over Prabowo Subianto, a former general and son-in-law of the late dictator. Political uncertainties remain, however, as Subianto announced Wednesday he plans to file a legal challenge in the nation’s highest court.
Election observers have reported few abnormalities, and the U.S., whose embassy witnessed vote counting, is confident it was a credible process.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated Widodo soon after Tuesday’s official result, and hours later, President Obama called the president-elect. He pointedly stated, according to a White House statement issued Wednesday, that “through this free-and-fair election, the people of Indonesia have once again shown their commitment to democracy.”
Working with current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has served since 2004 and will cede power Oct. 20, Obama has cultivated a stronger U.S. relationship with Indonesia as part of his administration’s effort to “rebalance” American foreign policy toward Asia. Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a child, visited the country twice during his first term.
The two nations declared a comprehensive partnership in 2010, and cooperate on areas including health, environment, education and regional diplomacy. Washington has encouraged Indonesia’s de facto leadership of Southeast Asia’s regional bloc as it strives for economic integration and copes with the rise of increasingly assertive China.
Indonesia has sought to main a strategic balance between the U.S. and China, and that’s likely to continue under Widodo, although he’s given few clues during the campaign about foreign policy, a field where he has scant experience. His first opportunity to meet Obama is likely to be at the East Asia Summit to be held in Myanmar in November.
The former furniture exporter, who won Indonesians over with his homespun style, has little experience on the national stage either but enjoys a reputation for efficient leadership. He will have plenty on his plate governing a vast archipelago of 240 million people. Economic growth has slowed over the past two years. The rising cost of fuel subsidies has forced cuts in state spending, and infrastructure is in a poor state.
Despite Indonesia’s emergence as a democracy, corruption is chronic. Indonesia ranked 114th out of 177 countries on Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.
U.S. officials are concerned over obstacles to foreign investment and mounting resource nationalism that has resulted in new regulations limiting foreign investment in mining and oil and gas extraction. And notwithstanding Indonesia’s reputation for moderate Islam and success in counterterrorism, the U.S. is concerned over the government’s failure to prevent persecution of religious minorities, such as Christians, minority Shiite Muslims and the Ahmadiyah Islamic sect.
But the Widodo victory takes at least one sensitive issue off the agenda — the human rights record of Prabowo, said Doug Paal, who served as White House director of Asian affairs under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Prabowo, a former commander of Indonesia’s notorious special forces, has been accused of ordering the disappearance of political activists before Suharto’s fall, allegations that reportedly led to him being denied a U.S. visa.
“That’s a plus from the start with ‘Jokowi,'” said Paal, using Widodo’s nickname. “There’s no legacy to detoxify.”
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