Indonesia will mount an impressive spectacle of popular choice, in which around 174m voters across 14,000 tropical islands will choose a president and vice-president and 560 parliamentarians. The chances are good that, as in the previous national elections in 2004, polling will be mostly peaceful and that the overwhelming majority of successful candidates will be committed to a pluralistic Indonesia with freedom of both speech and religion. Once again, the world’s most populous Muslim country will demonstrate that there is nothing incompatible between practicing Islam and being democratic.
This achievement will be all the more remarkable considering where Indonesia was just ten years ago: in chaos. After three decades in power, the authoritarian regime of President Suharto had collapsed amid rioting and no one knew what might take its place. Could such a huge, diverse and impoverished archipelago, with hundreds of ethnic groups, possibly hold together, given the weakness and corruption of its national institutions?
Since then the country has consistently surprised on the upside, even if the pace of reform has been ploddingly slow. Indonesia’s shattered finances have been repaired. It has developed a free press. The army’s hands have been prized from the levers of power. And, above all, Indonesia has become a democracy in which the voters can chuck out their government. Freedom House, an American think-tank, now rates Indonesia as the only completely free country in South-East Asia–putting its richer neighbours, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, to shame.