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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

DEMOCRACY CALLS

But some don't want to hear it


Indonesia's Elections: History in the Making Endgame The jockeying begins as the vote count plods on

Casualty Targeting the attorney-general

Economy Getting better but still rough

Interview The IMF's Indonesian agenda

Elections Who says democracy is better?

previous stories
Decision '99 Only a slow vote can spoil Indonesia's free and triumphant elections

The Parallel View Flashback to the 1955 ballot

Money Talked, But How Loudly? Accusations fly that Golkar and others misused funds to woo voters
YOU KNOW WHAT SOME people say about democracy: it doesn't work well if you introduce it too quickly, it's not good for the economy, it may not even be right for Asia. Indonesia's first free elections since 1955 could prove that, in fact, democracy is just what a country in crisis needs. "The elections are a good development for Indonesia and for the entire region," says Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan. He and others believe that if any country can show that democracy works, it is Indonesia - the most populous in Southeast Asia and the worst victim of the Crisis. "Amid almost every sort of problem you could imagine, Indonesia has been able to organize elections," says Suchit Bunbongkarn, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "That is very important."

Not everybody, of course, thinks so. But the generals in Myanmar and the communist party leaders in Vietnam kept quiet as Indonesia approached the June 7 vote. Only Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad made a point of voicing his doubts, as is his way. Four days before the elections, at a press conference in Tokyo, Mahathir warned of more trouble in Indonesia. "Democratic elections at the best of times are very destabilizing," he said. "It is even more destabilizing when it is conducted at a time when there is economic and political turmoil." Eventually, Indonesia may well be ruled by a fragile coalition government. But it is likely to inspire more confidence than either former president Suharto or his successor, B.J. Habibie, could in the Crisis.

Mahathir has always argued that Asia's economic troubles were caused by fickle international investors (or, as he called them recently, "funnymentals, intelligent humans behaving like silly animals in a herd"), not a lack of financial transparency and accountability and certainly not because of a lack of democracy. But others in ASEAN, notably the leaders of Thailand and the Philippines, believe that economic recovery (and growth) depends on democratic reform. That message has so far been lost on those in charge in Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Though the elections "will not hasten the advent of democracy in these countries," says Suchit, "at least it sends a signal to them that democracy works."

Or will work. After all, they're still just counting the votes. Megawati Sukarnoputri might not even be the next president, but many in the region think she is likely to be. She has a famous name, sure, but as Sumit Mandal, a research fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, says: "In 1996, Megawati was removed through very shady means with the outright collusion of the government. It mobilized the people." Megawati is a symbol of resistance to authoritarian rule. "She is the choice of the people, and the people know best who their leader should be," says Philippine Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Indonesians have waited a long time to say so.

- By Susan Berfield, with reporting from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo and Manila


This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home

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