Perhaps it’s because we like to reinforce our own prejudices with positive reaffirmations or perhaps it’s because the media does not know how to tell a complex story simply, but the weekend’s presidential election in Afghanistan was not the democratic triumph we have been led to believe. Yes, they were elections, but this was somewhat short of "two turnover test" that has been incorrectly applied to the notion of "democratic consolidation".
The most positive news to come from the elections was that there was relatively little violence on the part of the Taliban. This meant that most voters who wanted to participate could do so.
Indications are that the voter turnout was in excess of 50%, which might look good set against the United States' own abysmal electoral participation but falls well short of the enthusiastic 80%-plus registered in other new democracies. There has also been much celebration of the fact that around a third of the voters were women, which otherwise indicates how poor the status of women is in this still deeply traditionalist country.
Of the 11 presidential candidates, none was expected to come out as a clear winner with 50%-plus of the vote, meaning the elections would go to a run-off between the two leading candidates. Abdullah Abdullah appeared to be the candidate most favoured by the West, in part because he is a known figure, having run against Hamid Karzai in the 2009 elections, and in part because he is photogenic and speaks English well.
However, unlike 2009, the half-ethnic Pashtun-half Tajik Abdullah was not a frontrunner this time around. The winner is expected to be a full-blooded Pashtun, which while not of an absolute majority in their own right is still Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.
Of the two leading candidates, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai is an American-educated academic and former finance minister who spent much of his adult life outside Afghanistan. He appears competent and the least corrupt of the leading candidates. The other lead candidate is Zalmay Rassoul, who is backed by outgoing Hamid Karzai, and may be implicated in some of the allegations of profound corruption that have swirled around the Karzai camp.
Other candidates include religious figures, some close to the Taliban and a smattering of warlords. It will be several days, perhaps weeks, before it is known, however, who will head into the run-off.
Early reports suggest that the 2014 elections were not as compromised as the 2009 elections, in part because there were very few election observers left in the field to actually monitor the elections. Even so, there have still been numerous reports of irregularities and a lack of ballot papers in some areas, notably where Abdullah has the strongest support.
The run-off election, with massive opportunities for patronage available to the winner, is likely to see more serious electoral fraud. If reports continue to say that the situation has improved since 2009, that perhaps less reflects that the electoral process is a good one and more that the 2009 elections were, according to all of the electoral observers there then, the most corrupt and compromised in the history of election observation.
A large part of the Afghanistan political equation, though, is the Taliban, which conformed to an increasing political type by not disrupting election day itself. They know this is not the main game.
As the international presence in Afghanistan winds down, both in military and aid terms, no matter who is elected as the new president, they will have to negotiate directly with the Taliban. And the Taliban has shown that any such negotiations will, increasingly, be on their terms.
Afghanistan has had elections, which is positive, even if the process only partially fulfilled the criteria for being truly democratic. However, any suggestion that the "two turnover test" means anything more than forestalling the inevitable is to reflect a poor appreciation of Afghanistan’s conflicted history or fractured political dynamics.
In the race for the Indonesian presidential elections in July, Joko ‘Jokowi' Widodo has just been nominated as PDI-P's presidential candidate. This follows a decision by former president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, to shelve her own plans for an unlikely comeback to support the long-standing front-runner.
The 52 year old Jokowi is streets ahead of the nearest contender, former Kopassus chief and ex-Sunarto son-in-law Prabowo Subianto. Opinion polls show Jokowi consistently running at between double and triple Prabowo’s potential vote, with more than a third of the electorate favouring Jokowi in the first presidential round. Translated into a second round vote, Jokowi should, on current numbers, win the presidency in a landslide.
Having said that, Indonesia’s presidential elections are not a foregone conclusion. Indeed, nothing is a foregone conclusion in politics. But Jokowi would now have to make a serious error not to have a fairly easy run to the finish line.
Such challenges that the preferred presidential candidate now face will come after the elections, not before. The challenges that Jokowi will face will be principally around economic policy - he doesn't have any, yet Indonesia desperately needs to start charting a clear course if its economy is to reach anything like its potential.
Related to this, there remains a big question as to how Jokowi will handle Indonesia's economic rise, assuming it happens as predicted, and its parallel rise as a strategic power. The choices he will face are whether to continue to be inwardly focused and not assert Indonesia's increasingly important role in the region, or to look outwards and make Indonesia a more active international player.
On balance, one would say he will likely remain a conservative, or a minimalist, on foreign policy. Indonesia’s economy, on the other hand, could certainly benefit from clear economic direction, but Jokowi can be expected to be fairly hands off, with his default position tending towards nationalist or protectionist policies.
Beyond that, at this stage of the political game, there is not a great deal the others can do to 'steal' Jokowi's limelight. In Javanese culture, power accrues through perceived lack of action, or discreet action, rather than through overt action.
The more Jokowi’s main rivals, Prabowo and Golkar’s Aburizal Bakri, act, the more they will be seen as 'kasar' or coarse and over-reaching. Jokowi only need be himself to continue his good run of luck and the sense of charisma that appears to build based in his populist but not assertive appearances.
Jokowi is often portrayed as a ‘man of the people’, and he can claim to be closer to the ‘wong cilik’ (little people) than most of the political elite. Indeed, so much invested in Jokowi’s populism that he is seen to represent a clean break with the corruption and money politics that has dominated Indonesia in its post-Suharto period.
Yet in Indonesia, it is all but impossible to be successful in business, as Jokowi was in his home town of Surakarta, without at least flirting with corruption. That he has been a successful politician, first in his home town and then as Governor of Jakarta, perhaps speaks more to his engagement outside the main players in Indonesia’s oligarchy, rather than his complete removal from the world of patronage and favors.
The only possible problem that Jokowi would now face in his run to the presidential finish line will be if there is a critical issue between now and the election that Jokowi is unable to respond to adequately, and if his facade consequently crumbles, His charisma might then quickly crumble.
This close to the elections, though, it would have to be a dramatic issue and an equally dramatic collapse to have any real impact. All Jokowi need do is react little and he would be sufficiently politically preserved to use his electoral buffer to get across the line.
If one was to lay a bet, one would have to say that the odds are now very much stacked in favor of Jokowi becoming Indonesia’s next president. The next big question will be, once in office, how he will wield the still considerable authority the office holds, and whether he can stitch together a legislative majority to help ensure that whatever program he does try to implement will have some success of being passed into law.
Achieving office, in Indonesia, is one thing. Being able to do something with it to address the country's sense of drift is, however, quite another.
Indonesia’s democracy is being increasingly tested by the triple challenges of anti-reform actors, a high-level political malaise and popular disenchantment with the electoral process.
Prabowo Subianto accepts the Great Indonesia Movement Party nomination for the 2014 presidential election (Photo: Wikipedia).
One indicator of this has been an increasing tendency by the Indonesian military (TNI) to reassert itself into the political debate. Indonesia is heading into legislative elections in April and presidential elections in July on the back of poor performance by the country’s politicians, turning off voters in droves. Against this backdrop, one of Indonesia’s most senior army generals has raised the spectre of the army’s return to involvement in politics.
Indonesia’s army strategic command head, Lieutenant General Gatot Nurmantyo, has criticised Indonesia’s democracy as ‘empty’ and said that popular will expressed through elections is not always right. As a panacea, Nurmantyo has called for a reassertion of the nationalist ideology of Pancasila (five principles), which underpinned Suharto’s three decades as military-backed president.
Nurmantyo’s comments, made to a Pancasila Youth (PP) rally in October, reflect an increasing confidence by TNI hard-liners in challenging restrictions on military contact with politics. It was this hard-line faction of the TNI that helped end Indonesia’s military reform process around the time that President Yudhoyono began his second term as president.
Yudhoyono’s second term has been widely viewed as, at best, lack-lustre, and his Democratic Party-led government has been plagued by a series of corruption scandals. With other political parties fairing little better and ‘money politics’ dominating local electoral contests, popular support for Indonesia’s democratic process is in decline.
A series of surveys have shown that Indonesia’s forthcoming electoral participation rate may slump to below half. There is even an appetite among many voters for a return to ‘strong’ leadership, with a preference for candidates with a military background.
In a political environment in which one of the two front-runners for the presidency is former military hard-liner Lieutenant General (ret.) Prabowo Subianto, Nurmantyo’s breaking of over a decade of military silence on domestic politics signals a potential alternative to Indonesia’s democratic path.
Prabowo’s popularity is behind Jakarta governor Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo in the presidential polls. But Jokowi, himself a populist, does not yet have the backing of a major political party that is required for presidential nomination. Political support — if it comes — will be from former President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which has also demonstrated pro-military leanings at times.
Democracy in developing states tends to be vulnerable to reversal, particularly where the military remains primarily focused on internal rather than external threats. While Indonesia’s electoral system will very likely be retained, the potential for it to be restricted in ways that render voting more or less meaningless, as under Suharto, cannot be ruled out.
Nurmantyo’s controversial address to the PP was explained away, unconvincingly, by a senior politician as not contravening a ban on military personnel being involved in politics as it focused on the state ideology of Pancasila. The PP itself was founded by the TNI in 1959, soon after the military became directly involved in domestic politics.
Initially a civilian front for the military, the PP quickly degenerated into an organisation of thugs and criminals who often undertook dirty work on behalf of the Suharto regime. It has more recently been involved in violent turf wars with other gangs and remains associated with particular factions within the TNI.
Nurmantyo’s comments are not just the ravings of a military extremist, as he has been viewed as a rising star in the Indonesian army. His hard-line views saw him recently passed over for the position of army commander, but with a more conservative president in office following the July elections it is possible that Nurmantyo’s military career could again rise.
Indonesia’s neighbours are already concerned over the outcome of July’s presidential elections and a possible lurch towards a more assertively nationalist orientation. Set against growing voter apathy, generals such as Nurmantyo are well positioned to push Indonesia even further away from its recent path of reform.
Jokowi is a populist and has not enunciated a clear policy position. He may not be as pro-military as Prabowo, but his views on the military and the nature of democracy are largely unknown. If he was put forward by PDI-P — which is not looking hopeful at this stage — he would be required to follow PDI-P policy, such as it is, which is ‘preservation of national unity’ above all, which in turn is code for a greater role for the TNI.
The likelihood of Indonesia further entrenching its democratic credentials will require a win by a convincingly reform-oriented presidential candidate. Scanning of Indonesia’s political field just months away from the elections, however, holds out limited hope.
The only surprise in Cambodia’s elections over the weekend was that the victory for Hun Sen's Cambodian People’s Party was reduced to a comfortable rather than an overwhelming majority. For a "democracy" in which the ruling party and the state machine are, in effect, as one and there are widespread allegations of electoral fraud, the CPP’s reduced majority was a slap in the face to Hun Sen (pictured, after voting) and his strong-man style of government.
The CPP lost 29 seats to end up with a majority of just eight, for a total of 68 of the Cambodian Parliament's 123 seats. This means the CPP no longer has the two-thirds majority required to change the country’s constitution.
The crushing victory by Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party in the weekend’s elections has signalled that Japanese voters are worried, disillusioned and impatient for change. With Japan’s economy still in the doldrums, China’s influence growing and the country still reeling from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, many Japanese want a return to when the country was an economic powerhouse and its regional and domestic security was assured.
Although ignominiously defeated just three years ago, the recycled former prime minister Shinzo Abe has led the LDP back to power on a platform of getting the economy moving, standing up to China and re-starting the country’s nuclear power program. Despite around 80 per cent of Japanese voters wanting to see a phase-out of nuclear power following the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster, Abe’s pro-nuclear LDP sees nuclear power as central to the economy’s revival.
In a country in which there are no public opinion surveys and in which the still developing media could not be said to reflect, much less shape, the views of most people, trying to understand why the people of Timor-Leste vote as they do was not an exact science. Such judgments that could be made were only on the basis of anecdotal evidence set against what is known about Timor-Leste’s history and some conventional theories about politics.
Australia’s rebuilding of diplomatic ties with Fiji has taken some observers by surprise, given the strength of opposition to Fiji’s 2006 military coup. Australia has been torn between principle and real politik since its high commissioner, James, Battley, was ordered out of Fiji in 2009, followed by acting high commissioner Sarah Roberts in 2010. The question now is whether Australia has moved too quickly to still have any influence in Fiji’s proposed return to democratisation.
After cancelling the country’s 2009 elections, Fiji has recently established a voter roll, which indicates that the country could be preparing for elections, nominally scheduled for 2014. Fiji has not enjoyed freedom of speech or a free media since the 2006 coup nor does it allow freedom of assembly. Ousted prime minister Laisenia Qarase, whom Bainimarana installed after the 2000 coup, has just been convicted of abuse of office in a long-running corruption case.
On Sunday evening, 15 July 2012, a congress of CNRT party members in Dili voted to go into an alliance with the Democratic Party and Frenti Mudanca to form a new alliance to make up Timor-Leste’s Fifth Constitutional Government. In response, members of Fretilin rioted, burning more than 50 cars and stoning UN police sent to quell the trouble. While it seemed as though Timor-Leste was again reverting to its violent past, this was less a return to politics by fire and more the last gasp of an out of touch political leadership on the verge of become irrelevant.
It had always been expected that, should CNRT not achieve an absolute majority in its own right, that the Democratic Party would enter an alliance with it to form a majority. With Mudanca’s two seats, CNRT only needed one more seat to form a majority and PD’s eight seats took the new alliance well over the threshold 33 seats to a compelling 40 in the 65 seat parliament.
The results of the parliamentary elections in Timor-Leste on Saturday have resulted in two outcomes, the first of which is a major boost in the vote for CNRT, the party of prime minister Xanana Gusmao, from 24 per cent to 36 per cent of the total vote. The second and more important outcome has been the consolidation of the democratic process in Timor-Leste just ten years after achieving independence.
After changing government in 2007, the people of Timor-Leste have again voted strategically, to focus their vote on the major parties, with CNRT taking much of the vote away from the many smaller parties which tended to reflect personalities rather than policies or party positions.
CNRT will probably form government with one or possible two coalition partners. Of the 21 parties that contested the poll, 17 now appear to have missed the cut-off threshold of three per cent, leaving just four, possibly five, represented in the parliament.