WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s quick congratulation of Indonesia’s election victor Joko Widodo on Wednesday, even as the losing candidate rejected the result, underscores Washington’s intent to deepen ties with Jakarta and support democracy in Southeast Asia.
A peaceful transfer of power in Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, would go against a worrying trend in the region of flawed elections and military meddling.
Over the past year, there have been disputed elections in Malaysia and Cambodia, where this week the opposition agreed to end a parliamentary boycott. Thailand, once an example of democratic progress, is facing its most repressive period of military rule in decades. Authoritarian governments prevail in Laos and Vietnam, and reforms seem to be stalling in former pariah state Burma.
Political change has been comparatively smooth in Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, over the past decade and a half. Widodo’s emergence appears to reflect how far the country has come since popular protests ended the 30-year rule of former dictator Suharto in 1998.
Widodo, the 53-year-old Jakarta governor, was the first candidate in a direct presidential election without ties to Suharto. He won by 8 million votes, or 6 percent, over Prabowo Subianto, a former general and son-in-law of the late dictator. Political uncertainties remain, however, as Subianto announced Wednesday he plans to file a legal challenge in the nation’s highest court.
Election observers have reported few abnormalities, and the US, whose embassy witnessed vote counting, is confident it was a credible process.
Top US diplomat John Kerry congratulated Widodo soon after Tuesday’s official result, and hours later, Obama called the president-elect. He pointedly stated, according to a White House statement issued Wednesday, that “through this free and fair election, the people of Indonesia have once again shown their commitment to democracy.”
Working with current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has served since 2004 and will cede power Oct. 20, Obama has cultivated a stronger US relationship with Indonesia as part of his administration’s effort to “rebalance” American foreign policy toward Asia. Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a child, visited the country twice during his first term.
The two nations declared a comprehensive partnership in 2010 and cooperate on areas including health, environment, education and regional diplomacy. Washington has encouraged Indonesia’s de facto leadership of Southeast Asia’s regional bloc as it strives for economic integration and to cope with the rise of increasingly assertive China.
Indonesia has sought to keep a strategic balance between the US and China, and that’s likely to continue under Widodo, although he’s given few clues about foreign policy, a field where he has scant experience. His first opportunity to meet Obama is likely to be at the East Asia Summit to be held in Burma in November.
The former furniture exporter, who won over Indonesians with his homespun style, has little experience on the national stage but enjoys a reputation for efficient leadership. He will have to govern a vast archipelago of 240 million people. Economic growth has slowed over the past two years. The rising cost of fuel subsidies has forced cuts in state spending, and infrastructure is in a poor state.
Despite Indonesia’s emergence as a democracy, corruption is chronic. Indonesia ranked 114th out of 177 countries on Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.
US officials are concerned over obstacles to foreign investment and mounting resource nationalism that has resulted in new regulations limiting foreign investment in mining and oil and gas extraction.
And despite Indonesia’s reputation for moderate Islam and success in counterterrorism, the US is concerned over the government’s failure to prevent persecution of religious minorities, such as Christians, minority Shiite Muslims and the Ahmadiyah Islamic sect.
But the Widodo victory takes at least one sensitive issue off the agenda, Prabowo’s human rights record, said Doug Paal, who served as White House director of Asian affairs under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
Prabowo, a former commander of Indonesia’s notorious special forces, has been accused of ordering the disappearance of political activists before Suharto’s fall, allegations that reportedly led to him being denied a US visa.
“That’s a plus from the start with Jokowi,” said Paal, referring to Widodo’s nickname. “There’s no legacy to detoxify.”