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Indonesia's Road to Democracy

September 27, 2004

The terrorist bombing in Bali in October 2002, a subsequent attack on the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta and the explosion outside the Australian Embassy only 11 days before a presidential runoff election demonstrate the threat from

radicals in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation. President Megawati Sukarnoputri's response was listless; Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired army general who beat Megawati last week, should prove more energetic.

The nation's first direct presidential election (the selection was formerly left to parliament) dwelt little on issues. Personalities and name recognition across the archipelago of 17,000 islands played a larger role. Although the United States, Australia and other allies were concerned most about the country's response to terror, Indonesians were more worried about their pocketbooks. Yudhoyono will have to figure out how to provide more jobs and lower food prices without breaking the budget.

The country could save billions if it manages to decrease the corruption that reaches from villages into the Cabinet. Yudhoyono escaped being tagged as corrupt, unlike many other top army officers, but he will have to avoid handing ministries like mining to supporters eager to line their own pockets if he wants to continue to keep his name clean.

Indonesia has suffered an uneven struggle to emerge from the decades of dictatorship of Gen. Suharto, successor to Sukarno, the erratic first leader of independent Indonesia and Megawati's father. Megawati replaced a president who was impeached, and despite losing the runoff could remain a problem for Yudhoyono because her political party still commands many seats in parliament.

The new president can help smooth Indonesia's road to a secure democracy by supporting press freedom. The recent sentencing of the editor of Tempo magazine, Bambang Harymurti, to a year in prison on charges of libeling a businessman shows the need for reform. The magazine has been a courageous campaigner against Islamic extremism; whatever the verdict on the civil libel complaint that was filed earlier, the government should not have lodged criminal charges against Harymurti. Libel should be a civil, not a criminal, matter.

To protect Indonesia and assist neighboring countries and allies, Yudhoyono should reorganize security forces for a coordinated campaign against radical Islamists. He was Megawati's security minister but had little staff or budget and resigned from her Cabinet to run against her. His experience can help him push the army and police establishments to cooperate against a common enemy.

Indonesia has had secular governments since it became independent from the Dutch after World War II. Yudhoyono will continue that tradition; good governance also will give the lie to those who claim that Muslim nations and democracy are strangers.

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