Indonesia: a steady democratic light in a dark Southeast Asian tunnel

Look at the region now. Malaysia, as is mentioned elsewhere on this page, is being driven by scandals, corruption and intra-party squabbling as the new and tainted Prime Minister Najib Razak takes over.

By Jonathan Manthorpe, Vancouver Sun

To have written a decade ago, or even five years ago when president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won office, that Indonesia was en route to becoming a beacon of democratic stability in Southeast Asia would have invited derisive laughter, and rightly so.

But if a week is a long time in politics, a decade is an eternity.

Look at the region now.

Thailand is still embroiled in the fallout from the 2006 palace-backed coup against the elected government of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thailand's political and economic future is now wrapped up in the succession once the crown passes from the hands of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and that may take years to resolve.

Malaysia, as is mentioned elsewhere on this page, is being driven by scandals, corruption and intra-party squabbling as the new and tainted Prime Minister Najib Razak takes over.

The Philippines is approaching the end of the rule of political dominatrix Gloria Magapagal Arroyo, who seized power in a 2001 palace coup. But this is the land of the incomplete revolution and when election time rolls by the controlling feudal families will throw up another president who will, like all the others, ensure special interests are well fed.

Laos and Vietnam remain one-party states, though in Vietnam there are factions within the Communist Party that debate their differences almost in public. In Laos factional strife still tends to be resolved violently.

Cambodia is also a one-party state which allows elections just so long as Prime Minister Hun Sen wins.

People who object to this arrangement have a nasty habit of meeting young men on the back seat of motorcycles armed with pistols.

Singapore is the corporate conglomerate of the extended family of founding leader and now "Minister Mentor" Lee Kuan Yew. But the management of current prime minister, his son Lee Hsien Loong, seems to be enraging more and more of Singapore's voter/shareholders.

There may be hope for the Lion City yet.

Burma is now even more disgusting than usual as both India and China wiggle their hips at the bone-headed generals in charge while mewling for the keys to the country's vast storehouse of natural resources.

Brunei is an absolute monarchy which bobs up and down on a lake of oil and East Timor will soon be wondering whether it was actually a good idea to leave Indonesia.

In these troubled waters Indonesia and Yudhoyono look like sanctuaries of stability and sanity after the turmoil that followed the forced retirement of dictator president Suharto in 1998.

Three inept presidents selected by the parliament quickly came and went before the former army general Yudhoyono was chosen by direct popular vote in 2004.

But his Democratic Party did not have a majority and he was forced into an alliance with Golkar, the party created by the old dictator Suharto as a pretend piece of pluralism, whose current leader Yusuf Kalla became vice president.

This uneasy alliance illustrates the compromises that Yudhoyono's critics say he is sometimes too willing to make. He's accused of dithering, avoiding unpopular decisions and putting more value in appearances than real achievements.

In particular, say his critics, for a man who came to the presidency on a ticket of cleaning up Indonesia's notorious corruption he has been remarkably reluctant to winkle out the crooks.

A prime example is the fate of Suharto's sun, Tommy, who served only four years in a country club prison after being convicted of arranging the murder of a judge who had convicted him of corruption.

As for the billions of dollars that Suharto, his family and cronies stole from the state or gathered in corrupt business deals, no serious attempt has been made to recover it.

Even so, if life in Indonesia has been free of major achievements in the last five years, it has also been free of major social upheavals other than those visited on the nation by Mother Nature such as the tsunami at the end of 2004.

Yudhoyono faces re-election in July, when he will probably face current Vice-President Kalla and perhaps Suharto's unpleasant right-wing son-in-law, former army general, Prabowo Subianto.

Opinion polls give Yudhoyono a clear edge, but a better picture will come in parliamentary elections on April 9 when the 171 million voters will sort through 38 political parties and over 11,000 candidates to elect 560 legislators.