Indonesia’s Non-Issue

The elections in Indonesia have witnessed plenty of singing, but surprisingly little talk of terror…

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

This year’s presidential elections in Indonesian are being
hailed as historic because, among other things, they are
the first in which the nation’s leader will be directly elected.
And the unexpected popularity of the “underdog” candidate,
former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (known as SBY) — who
earned a first place finish in this week’s first-round-of
voting and will be up against incumbent Megawati
Soekarnoputri in the September run-off — has given the
established parties a run for their money.

On the stump, the candidates stressed the need to fight
corruption and create jobs. And they sang (a lot). And Megawati
even implored voters to cast their ballot for the

“most beautiful candidate.”
What the various presidential hopefuls didn’t do much of, however, was talk about terrorism.

One big reason for this apparent oversith is that terrorism simply isn’t a top concern for ordinary Indonesians. According to a survey by the Washington-based International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES),
only 0.7
percent of the eligible voters in Indonesia named terrorism
as an issue
that the candidates should address. By comparison, 33 percent cited
battling corruption, while 27 percent said lowering inflation, and 17
percent job creation. Which is hardly surprising, given that some
40 million
Indonesians are unemployed or underemployed

It is among these
poor voters, many of whom originally supported Megawati, that SBY
has drawn his support. SBY finished with
33.42 percent of the
, Megawati, 26.46 percent, and another former general,
Wiranto, 22.29 percent.

Still, given that Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the terrorist group
loosely linked to al-Qaeda, has undermined the country’s
economy by scarring away investors and foreigners in
general, terrorism would seem to warrant much greater
attention than it is currently receiving. In the 2002 Bali
disco bombings, over 200 people, mostly foreigners were
killed, and last summer’s attack on Marriott Hotel in Jakarta,
killed 12. The Indonesian government is quick to point out
that it has arrested some 150 suspects, 3 of whom have been
sentenced to death. But critics retort that the masterminds
of the attacks have not been captured and that JI is far
from feeling the full weight of government persecution.
According to recent press reports, JI is changing its
strategy from bombings of Western hangouts to targeted
assassinations of Western diplomats and businessmen. As the

Wall Street Journal
(subscription) argues:

“The change in tactics by JI must be read as an indictment
of the Indonesian government’s feeble response to the threat
of terrorism. President Megawati Sukarnoputri has failed to
articulate a policy on radical Islam and a coherent set of
measures against terrorism. The fact is, JI is changing
tactics in order to be even more effective in sowing fear
and terror, and not because it is feeling any increased heat
from the government. In fact, Indonesia continues to be the
one country in Southeast Asia where the militant group has
been able to operate most effectively, and where it has been
able to wreak the most damage…

True, with 220 million people spread out across the
archipelago, few Indonesians are actually in any direct
danger from terrorism. And in an election year,
bread-and-butter issues usually land in the spotlight. Yet
it is just as true that in Indonesia jobs and the economy
also fall under the shadow of terrorism. A climate of fear
makes foreign investors — who also come from other parts of
Southeast Asia and not just from the West — more inclined
to consider other places to set up shop. Data just released
bear this out: Foreign investment approvals for January to
May this year amounted to $2.5 billion, compared with $4.2
billion in the like period a year before.”

The Indonesian government has been downplaying the
possibility of attacks in the run-up to the September voting,
but the U.S. government clearly sees them as likely. Last
month, the
State Department
issued a warning urging that Americans
“defer all non-essential travel to Indonesia,” stating that
“the Jemaah Islamiyah and other similar terrorist
groups might use these elections as opportune occasions to
conduct attacks.”

Before being fired as the security minister, SBY was in
charge of handling the Bali blast investigation, and is seen
in the West as being the most experienced and most outspoken
of the candidates on the country’s terrorist threat. As
sociologist Daniel Sparringa told
: Many try
not to be too clear about the issue but the one that has
been clear is SBY, and seen as the most firm…It doesn’t mean
they [the other candidates] don’t have the commitment to
fight terrorism but they try to put it more low-profile.”


referred to SBY as the minister “who showed the
greatest appreciation of the depths of the terrorist
challenge in Indonesia” and “one of the very few ministers
who could get things done.” SBY served as the U.N.’s
military observer in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 and was
graduate student in the U.S.

While SBY served under the country’s infamous dictator
Suharto, including in East Timor, unlike Winatro, who has been indicted by U.N Criminal Tribunal for
human rights violations in East Timor, similar allegations
have not been mounted against him. Wiranto, who was expected
to finish second, may try to dispute his
third-place finish in court. Wiranto’s campaign has argued that by

millions of double punched
(and hence invalid), election
officials played into Magawati’s hands, handing her
provinces won by Winatro. Independent observers, however,
note that the gap between the two candidates was too wide
for those votes to have altered the outcome of the election.

SBY finished clearly in the lead, but his supporters had
hoped (and pollsters bolstered that hope) that SBY would get
a majority of votes in the first round, and avoid facing a
run-off. The fact that the front-runner’s lead has shrunk in
recent weeks, may bode grimmer news ahead. SBY’s novelty
maybe wearing off and his embryonic party will have to
contend with an well-oiled government machine ready to fork
out bribes — big and small — to stay in power.

Asia Times
points out:

“One way to motivate voters is with money, something Golkar
and PDI-P can dispense with far greater alacrity than
Susilo’s minions. The September 20 voting date also gives
the contenders plenty of time to reload their war chests,
ensuring that money can play a significant role in the
campaign. Whichever party finishes second is likely to get
the major slice of tycoon funding as a known quantity with a
record of delivering the goods.

‘A fast scan of the numbers indicates that [Susilo] did not
do well among the undecideds,’ says Kenneth Sherrill,
professor of political science and department chair at New
York’s Hunter College. Initial support for Susilo appears to
have been cinta monyet (monkey love, Indonesia’s version of
puppy love), which doesn’t last. The more people look, the
less they find.

Were he to face Megawati in a runoff, Susilo could lose much
of the reform vote, while the political establishment would
likely stick with the devil it knows. Golkar [Wiranto’s
Party] and PDI-P [Megawati’s] Indonesian Democratic Party of
Struggle] cooperated to win Megawati the presidency in 2001
and have worked together comfortably since. Party pros eager
to reassert their dominance after interloper Wiranto won the
presidential nomination from insider Akbar Tanjung would
gladly team up with Megawati for another five years of cozy
accommodation rather than risk upheaval with a new

Regardless of whether SBY or Megawati ultimately wins, this
election reaffirmed the country’s secularism — candidates
espousing extreme interpretations of Islam fared badly.
Vice-president Hamzah Haz who advocates shariah law and has
said that the 9/11 attacks would “cleanse the sins of the
U.S.” managed to get only

3 percent of the vote
. Megawati, has long been at odds with
some of the country’s clerics who object to a female running
a country, but her latest appearances in a veil, are seen as
a superficial attempts to appeal to the more conservative
voters. SBY, meanwhile, has had, as the Washington
notes, been a “target of rumors that he is

, the candidate of the Christians.”

Speaking to reporters in Indonesia, former President
Jimmy Carter
called this week’s elections “a wonderful transition from
authoritarian rule to purely democratic rule in just six
years and the people of Indonesia are to be congratulated.” True, the elections occurred without major disturbances and
Winatro’s third-place finish may one day be remembered as
the final nail in the coffin of Suharto’s lingering
influence over the country. However, the government is
facing several separatist movements, which have resulted in
bloodshed and will continue to do so, corruption and
unemployment are widespread, and more terrorist attacks may
hit the country before election day.

Sadly, the Indonesian government has shown little tolerance for criticism on the matter of
terrorism in particular. Sidney Jones, an analyst for the
think-tank International Crisis Group, has recently been
kicked out of the country after issuing reports critical of
the government’s handling of extremist groups and separatist
movements. As ICG’s chief Gareth Evans put it: “To
the messenger
doesn’t say much for the state of political
liberty in Indonesia under the Megawati government.”


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2022 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2022 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.