Hashim Djojohadikusumo: Indonesia needs US help for free elections

Guest Commentary

The upcoming Indonesian elections will be the most important in the country’s history. Indonesia has made an impressive transition toward inclusive democratic governance since the fall of the Suharto regime in the late ’90s, and the three elections held in the country’s 15-year democratic era have been heralded as relative successes. 

The upcoming 2014 Indonesia elections will be the most intensely contested in the country’s history, generating unprecedented incentives to manipulate, defraud and destabilize the electoral process. While the 2004 elections were widely considered free, fair and credible, the execution of the 2009 poll, as with any infant democracy, did result in allegations of improper vote counting and voter registration and other problems. If the country’s recent electoral history is placed in context with the country’s lack of a fully matured democratic system, extremely troubling new developments in the electoral preparations, and the critically high stakes for the country, it is clear that free, fair, peaceful and credible elections in Indonesia are undoubtedly attainable, but certainly not guaranteed without political pressure and significant support from international friends and partners helping to ensure the poll is not a fraudulent one.

Challenges to a free and fair election in Indonesia are extensive. Indonesia is still a young democracy, and its autocratic history far exceeds its short track record of representative government. This election will be the first in which Indonesia does not have an incumbent running for reelection, guaranteeing a new president will democratically transition into power. Democratic institutions are still consolidating, electoral systems are still evolving, and the government must continue to build trust in a citizenry understandably skeptical of government corruption. Logistically, only three democratic national elections have been conducted in a country of more than 170 million voters on 17,000 islands in more than 500,000 polling stations. Many people and groups will have motive and opportunity to manipulate, subvert or disrupt our vulnerable system. This logistical mountain can only be climbed by extensive internal cooperation and coordination and external partnerships with domestic and international institutions. The U.S. can play a vital role in this effort by providing technical support and election monitoring teams, and publicly reaffirming the importance of a free and fair poll in Indonesia.

Additionally, highly concerning reports continue to pour in that would seriously threaten the credibility of the elections. These threats must be immediately addressed head on. News of inaccurate data for millions of voters and a report filed by the Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) Party highlighting an additional 3.7 million data errors have raised fears that the registry system could disenfranchise close to 10 percent of eligible voters on Election Day. 

Corruption remains a central challenge in Indonesia, ranking 118th in Transparency International’s annual index, and will be a major threat to the electoral integrity. Indonesia is a country valuing ethnic and religious tolerance, with 38 million Christians living among the Muslim majority, but political persecution of religious minorities by Islamic extremists threatens this fundamental Indonesian principle. Islamic radicalism is on the rise in Indonesia, working to infiltrate the political sphere by any means necessary, including political violence. Indonesian authorities continue their attempt to suppress this growth of extremism but support will be needed to protect minority rights within the electoral process, and our partners and friends can play a constructive role in this effort. 

Finally, the stakes for this election are simply too high for Indonesia not to cooperate with our partners and friends in the international community on election observer missions and technical and logistical support. These elections will be the most important in our nation’s history, with more than a third of the voters casting their ballot for the first time. This experience will lay the foundation on which Indonesians will view the democratic process for decades to come. We must get it this election right. 

Similarly, Indonesia’s income inequality is much too high, and continues to rise. Our rural communities must have a voice in who represents them and those leaders must commit — and as the leading Indonesian political party, Gerindra, policy platform has done — to expanding economic opportunities, such as infrastructure, education and healthcare to our poorer citizens and rural communities. 

Our political and economic stability hinges on our ability to conduct free, fair, peaceful and credible elections in 2014. Multiple challenges threaten our capability to successfully execute these elections: they must be met with commitment, cooperation and partnership with domestic and international organizations. We will need political support from friends, such as the U.S. and Australia, and we will need independent observers and monitors from organizations such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, the International Republican Institute, The Carter Center and others to ensure these elections are not fraudulent and every Indonesia can peacefully and accurately express their voice. A free and fair election in 2014 in Indonesia is most certainly attainable — we’ve done it before — but by no means is it guaranteed without a tremendous effort to protect the integrity of a democratic process so vital to our future. 

Djojohadikusumo is vice chairman of the Supreme Leadership Council and a founding member of the Gerindra Party.