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Indonesia’s Elections: Nation Builders at Work 

By Craig Charney and Tim Meisburger | The Straits Times | October 14, 2004 | 3 pages

JAKARTA — Four years ago, an unlikely TV star was born here. She wasn’t a sexy young thing plugging cellphones. A grey-haired crone in traditional Javanese patchwork dress, she rasped, ‘This time, make up your own mind’. Some 62 million people saw the United States-funded advertisement in which she urged women to vote for their own choices, not their husbands’. The slogan became a national catchphrase.

During Indonesia’s first free elections in 1999, and again this year in its second, US-backed voter education programmes strengthened this fledgling democracy. Four years ago, joint projects by overseas and local groups built up public confidence in elections and democratic values. This year, they helped empower voters to hold officials to account.

Though outside attention focused on Islamist terror here — exemplified by the Sept 9 Australian Embassy bombing — and the presidential elections, something even more important is happening in this country. Democracy is taking root in the world’s largest Muslim nation, and US aid is helping.

This success challenges the fashionable scepticism about US attempts at ‘nation building’, particularly in Islamic countries. The problems of nation-builders in Iraq and Afghanistan, which dominate debate on the topic, underline the fact that foreign aid cannot cure all the ills of fragile new ‘democracies’. But the Indonesian case shows how well-planned democracy promotion can be a good investment.

In 1999, the year after Mr Suharto’s dictatorship was overthrown, a multi-million-dollar US-funded voter education drive was launched to help lay the foundation for free elections. The US Agency for International Development and other overseas funders supported private groups, such as the Asia Foundation, in this effort. They sponsored polls to gauge voters’ knowledge of democracy and helped local pro-democracy groups plan and run voter education and election monitoring campaigns.

Their messages went out everywhere: via TV spots and serials, radio, newspapers, leaflets, comic books, posters — even housewives’ shopping bags! Some 85 per cent of the 132 million voters were exposed to the non-partisan education effort. The campaign described the new election rules and monitors that would halt the election fraud that marked Mr Suharto’s 33-year rule, promoted political tolerance and democratic values and — as in the Javanese woman’s ad — challenged women to assert themselves.

The results were impressive.

Two-thirds of those who repeatedly saw or heard such messages thought the election would make a difference, compared to just one-fourth of those with no such exposure. Some 77 per cent of voter education recipients were tolerant towards parties they disliked, versus 46 per cent among voters with none.

Women who saw the ‘Make up your own mind’ ad were 16 points likelier to think women should do just that.

Most remarkably, nine in 10 voter education recipients had some idea of what democracy might mean – against just three in 10 among those it never reached. Recent polls showed that Indonesians have retained the understanding of democracy, political tolerance and confidence in democratic elections they had gained in 1999. This was underscored by the 85 per cent turnout in April’s parliamentary elections and July’s first round of presidential voting.

Since Indonesian voters are now familiar with free elections, voter education efforts this year sought to increase the political system’s responsiveness to the electorate. Projects included distributing vast numbers of election guides to help voters compare parties on the issues; leaflets on what they can demand of their representatives; TV ads urging them to use their vote to voice their demands; and posters calling on women to consider women’s issues in voting. An evaluation of one major campaign showed it reached three voters in four. The aims included raising citizens’ awareness that they can influence their government and encouraging issue-based campaigns by candidates.

Despite its political progress, Indonesia still faces major social problems — joblessness, inflation and corruption — and these have produced widespread dissatisfaction. The bombing last month, following earlier attacks in Bali and Jakarta, brought terrorism to the fore again. In July’s ballot, voter discontent put President Megawati Sukarnoputri behind Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, her former security minister, and eliminated a general representing Mr Suharto’s Golkar party. Dr Yudhoyono led Mrs Megawati two-to-one in the polls in the September 20 run-off, but surveys before the July vote had overstated his support and under-reported hers, leaving the outcome uncertain.

Yet, the real winner in Indonesia’s election is democracy itself. July’s vote, universally seen as free and fair, was termed a ‘model of Islamic democracy’ by The Economist. Despite public discontent with government, no one advocates or expects a return to dictatorship.

Indeed, the elimination of the Golkar candidate and reaction against Ms Megawati’s shortcomings in July’s ballot reflected the success of democracy-building efforts, not failure. The mainspring of democratic accountability is the electors’ ability to ‘throw the rascals out’, which Indonesians have learnt they possess. Voters — not back-room deal-makers — are in charge now.

Indonesians appreciate the contribution foreign aid has made to this process. In a poll last month, over 80 per cent of the public said non-governmental electoral education and monitoring projects helped promote understanding of democracy and ensure free elections, and over 70 per cent favoured international support for such programmes.

Our experience in Indonesia thus offers America some rare good news from the Muslim world. With supportive local partners and a sympathetic public, nation-building can make a difference — and earn kudos — too.

Craig Charney is president of Charney Research, a New York polling firm, which conducted surveys in Indonesia for the foundation in 1999 and last year. Tim Meisburger is the Asia Foundation’s elections programme manager, based in Jakarta.

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