Richard Baker: Secular Nationalism Wins in Indonesia's Presidential Election

Date: 07-09-2004

HONOLULU (July 9) -- The most striking aspect of the first round of balloting in Indonesia's presidential election is the fact that the top three slates, which account for more than 80 percent of the votes, are headed by secular nationalist figures rather than Islamic leaders, an East-West Center specialist said.

Despite the focus of foreign media and governments on Islamic radicalism and the dramatic incidents perpetrated by Islamic terrorists, "this result confirms the continuing moderation of Indonesia's overwhelmingly Islamic population and the relative weakness of political Islam in the country," said Richard Baker, an Indonesia specialist.

"Secular nationalism triumphed over Islamic politics," Baker said. "The Islamic political vote was widely split and more radical Islamic forces were essentially invisible in terms of electoral impact."

Based on 85 million ballots tabulated so far (about 2/3 of the likely total), the top vote-getter with nearly 34 percent is Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired general and former cabinet member but a new face in electoral politics. Running second with just over 26 percent of the vote, therefore almost certain to qualify for a runoff on Sept. 20, is incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri. In third place with 22-23 percent is another retired general and former minister under longtime strongman President Suharto as well as two subsequent governments, Wiranto.

All three of the top finishers chose figures with strong Islamic credentials as their running mates in a clear effort to both reassure and attract support from Muslim voters. But the other two competing slates, led by explicitly Islamic presidential candidates -- former Islamic social organization leader Amien Rais, and Megawati's vice president and longtime Islamic party leader Hamzah Haz -- finished well behind the first three, with 14 plus percent and just over 3 percent respectively. Of these two, only Hamzah Haz has supported the establishment of an Islamic state in Indonesia.

Finally, the newer (though not considered extremist) fundamentalist Islamic PKS party, which dramatically increased its vote in the April parliamentary elections compared to the previous 1999 election and will have the largest representation in the new Jakarta regional parliament, was clearly ambivalent about the presidential candidates and only endorsed Amien Rais, its most natural ally, days before the election.

Baker noted that the election was also a vote for change. "Of all the candidates, only Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a truly new face in electoral politics. His first-place finish suggests many Indonesians are tired of the existing, bickering and lackluster leaders and want someone who will bring a fresh approach to government." However, Soesilo's greatest liability "is simply his newness on the public stage. If the initial burst of enthusiasm following his break with Megawati and entry into the presidential race in March continues to lose steam, the runoff may end up being closer and more chaotic than had been generally anticipated before the first round of balloting."

Regardless, the July 5 election was "a good day for democracy. The peaceful election process and orderly balloting by some 120 million voters in a first-time direct presidential election is an impressive outcome for a country still emerging from a long period of authoritarian government."

Richard Baker can be reached at (808) 944-7371 or

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center