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It’s rare when any political leader wins a 60% mandate in a free and fair election, which is why commentary on last week’s Indonesian election has focused on the personal success of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
However, Indonesia’s success in building democratic institutions in just 10 years is equally remarkable. It is yet another demonstration of the appeal of free institutions, in this case to people with East Asian value systems and in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world.
Ten years ago it wasn’t hard to find skeptics about the democratic experiment in Indonesia. The financial collapse that brought about President Suharto’s resignation in 1998 pushed more than a quarter of the country’s population below the official poverty line. East Timor’s violent separation from Indonesia severely damaged the country’s international reputation and threatened the breakup of the entire country.
Radical Islamist movements were also gaining strength and causing bloody clashes with Christians in Eastern Indonesia. Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America and an al Qaeda threat in Indonesia, including a bombing in Bali in October 2002.
Against that background, it seems hard to believe how well Indonesia is doing today. Per capita incomes are more than double what they were when I arrived there as U.S. ambassador 25 years ago. Since 2000, Indonesia’s economy has grown at an average of more than 4% a year. Last year the rate was 6%.
The country has made strides in other areas as well. The war in Aceh has ended. Secessionist sentiment elsewhere in the country has largely disappeared, thanks in part to a transition to democracy. And the Indonesian police have recorded substantial successes against terrorism.
Above all, Indonesia’s political process has displayed a remarkable degree of maturity. Three consecutive free and fair presidential elections is one mark of that. Voters have also shown an impressive degree of common sense. For example, when President Yudhoyono was criticized because his wife often appears in public without a head covering, or jilbab, voters shrugged off the criticism.
No single explanation can account for the progress of such a complex country over the course of the last decade. Mr. Yudhoyono’s leadership deserves a great deal of credit, as does the country’s tradition of tolerance and respect for women. Indonesia’s first two democratically elected presidents were Abdurrahman Wahid, a devout Muslim leader and proponent of religious tolerance, and Megawati Sukarnoputri, a passionate spokeswoman for democracy. Neither presidency was very successful, but the values each embodied were influential.
So too were a variety of civil society groups that thrived despite restrictions from the Suharto regime. Indonesia’s press was financially independent and competitive, so the country had the basis for a free media as soon as censorship restrictions were lifted. Many of the country’s leaders were also educated in democratic countries. Mr. Yudhoyono is a graduate of the U.S. Army’s Command and Staff College.
But we can’t be complacent about Indonesia’s future. The problems facing the country are enormous, poverty first among them. Corruption remains a deterrent to foreign investment. Islamic fundamentalism poses a threat. The authorities have shown a disturbing passivity in the face of attacks on churches and mosques of certain minority sects. Many Indonesians are fearful that government restrictions on pornography and proselytizing will be used by extremists to restrict free expression.
On the positive side, recent elections showed that there has been a decline in the influence of overtly Islamist parties.
The U.S. has an enormous stake in Indonesia. It provides stability for the whole of Southeast Asia, a region of more than half a billion people. It is an example for other aspiring democracies. And if it continues to make progress on religious tolerance, it can point the way for other majority Muslim countries.
Indonesians have achieved this success largely on their own. But having chosen a path of freedom, democracy, and religious tolerance, they would like to see that recognized. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did that on her visit in February. When Mr. Obama visits in November he will receive a hero’s welcome. He should use that to speak forcefully on behalf of the great majority of Indonesians who believe in tolerance and equality for all the country’s citizens.
Paul Wolfowitz is a visiting scholar at AEI.
A version of this article appeared in the Wall Street Journal Asia.
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