Indonesia’s Successful Democratic Transition Adds New Momentum to US-Indonesian Relations

Veteran foreign policy sages agree that the world is facing an uncommon period of instability and challenges from Ukraine, to Iraq, Syria, Central African Republic, the Ebola emergency, and many more. The recent election of Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo as Indonesia’s next president, marking the first democratic transition in Indonesia from one directly elected leader to another, has captured the world’s attention as a welcome success story and brought into focus the remarkable transition Indonesia has made in the last 16 years and the powerful example of this Muslim-majority country for the rest of the Muslim world.

In 1998, Indonesia’s prospects were very much in doubt. The Asian financial crisis saw the Indonesian economy contract by nearly 14 percent in that year alone. The country’s economic collapse and widespread public anger with the growing corruption of then-President Suharto’s family forced the departure of Suharto. Challenges in Papua, Aceh, and East Timor raised questions of whether the country would be able to hold together.

Sixteen years later, Indonesia has a thriving democracy, a free press, a wide range of vigorous nongovernmental organizations, and vibrant social media. Indeed, Indonesia has the fourth highest number of Facebook users (over 60 million) and the fifth highest number of Twitter users in the world (nearly 30 million). Jakarta alone is the Twitter capital of the world, with 2.4 percent of all tweets worldwide generated every day by users in this city. Indonesia’s economy is also doing well, having recorded the second fastest rate of growth in the G-20.

A Fresh Face Inspires Great Hope

The election of Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, highlighted new milestones in Indonesia’s democratic development. Nearly 135 million Indonesians turned out to vote, in the largest one-day, centrally managed election in the world. The elections were the most peaceful and transparent in Indonesia’s history, in part because of public confidence in the General Election Commission’s capacity to run a free and fair election, assisted by President Yudhoyono who encouraged candidates to keep their supporters off the streets and respect constitutional processes.

Jokowi himself represents a break from the past. He will be the first president who was not active in politics during the Suharto era. Born on a riverbank in Central Java, his popular appeal emanates largely from the sense of ordinary Indonesians that he is one of them. At 53, Jokowi is the first of Indonesia’s presidents to be a fan of heavy metal music and the first candidate to use social media to mobilize support and get out the vote. A success­ful furniture manufacturer and exporter, he was first elected in 2005 as Mayor of Solo, in the heartland of Java.

His success there earned him nationwide attention, prompting supporters to urge him to run for governor of Jakarta. The humble Jokowi at first resisted, but finally consented and confounded many skeptics by scoring a comfortable victory over the incumbent governor in 2012, riding his reputation as a clean, pragmatic, and effective leader. As governor, he introduced on-line payment of taxes, thereby increasing revenues 75 percent, practiced surprise visits to his government offices to raise bureaucratic re­sponsive­ness, and made progress to initiate public transportation improvements to reduce Jakarta’s woeful congestion. He expanded access to healthcare for the poor in Jakarta and created a program to give poor children money to use for school uniforms, books, and meals.

Expect Sustained Momentum in US-Indonesian Relations

Jokowi’s election augurs well for US relations with Indonesia. As a businessman, he regularly visited North Carolina, Chicago, and other cities to sell furni­ture. American businesses in Indonesia welcome Jokowi’s focus on improving governance, streamlining the bureaucracy, and enhancing education. He has expressed his support for continuing to strengthen our Comprehensive Partnership established by Presidents Obama and Yudho­yono in 2010.

The growing convergence of our values and interests has led to an unprecedented scope of cooperation across a wide range of fields, including trade and investment, development, health, science, technology, and entrepreneurship.

Indonesia’s middle class is expected to double in less than ten years, further enhancing Southeast Asia’s largest market. US companies have been among Indonesia’s largest investors over the past several years, while bilateral trade has increased to $28 billion. If the president-elect can improve Indonesia’s sclerotic infrastructure, streamline the thicket of permits at the local, provincial, and federal levels, reduce inefficient subsidies, encourage a more outward looking orientation, and deliver on his promise to improve governance, he has a good chance to raise growth rates, reduce poverty, and further accelerate trade with the United States and others.

A key priority must also be to improve education at all levels, so Indonesia can benefit from its demographic dividend of young Indonesians who will be entering the job market in the next two decades. A good start would be to increase dramatically the enroll­ment of Indonesians at US universities, who number less than 8,000 today. Another top goal is to scale up bilateral university partnerships, both to expand joint research and development and diversify educational opportunities for our students.

As the world grapples to combat climate change, the United States and Indonesia, two of the world’s top five emitters of greenhouse gases, have intensified our cooperation to support Indonesia’s efforts to reduce deforestation, preserve its unique marine and terres­trial biodiversity, and catalyze renewable energy development. We helped Indonesia establish the Indonesian Climate Change Center to map forest and land use and reduce clear­ing of peatland. We have signed two Tropical Forest Conservation Act debt-for-nature swap agreements, worth a combined $60 million, and are currently negotiating an amendment to add an additional $11.5 million to our efforts to preserve biodiversity-rich forests in Sumatra. To further support protection of Indonesia’s endangered species, in February 2014 we signed a bilateral Memorandum of Understand­ing (MOU) on conservation of endangered species and combating wildlife trafficking, which will provide a platform for expanded collaboration in environmental law enforcement and habitat conservation. As part of a new $600 million Millennium Challenge Corporation compact, a Green Prosperity Project will boost renewable energy use to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

To underpin all of our activities, the United States supports Indonesia’s efforts to strengthen governance, rule of law, and essential services for the poor and vulnerable through USAID programs focused on democracy promotion, education, health, and the environment. Thanks to Indonesia’s economic success, our development relationship is increasingly based on an equal partnership, and leveraged contributions from the private sector, civil society, and higher education.

During President Yudhoyono’s tenure, US-Indonesia security and defense coopera­tion improved dramatically. As Indonesia’s largest military engagement partner, we conduct nearly 200 joint exercises, exchanges, and other military-to-military engage­ments every year. Over 1,500 Indonesian military personnel have participated in United States training programs since 2006, and we will train hundreds more in 2014. Indonesia is one of fewer than 15 countries in the world to which we sell AH-64 Apache attack helicopters—an excellent indicator of the increasing closeness of our relationship. Our training and assistance programs help Indonesia modernize and professionalize its military while building strategic capabilities in maritime security and international peacekeeping operations.

A Growing Role in the World

Indonesia’s economic growth and democratic success has given it the wherewithal and clout to exercise a greater regional and global role. A leader in ASEAN, Indonesia has played a key role in working to forge ASEAN consensus and progress toward a code of conduct that would help enforce a rules-based order in the South China Sea. Indonesia has 1,800 peacekeepers in eight UN peacekeeping operations, including Sudan and Liberia.

But it is Indonesia’s example as a tolerant Muslim-majority democracy that gives the United States and other countries a strong incentive to encourage a wider role for Indonesia. With 17,000 islands in a vast archipelago that spans a distance nearly equal to that from Florida to Alaska, Indonesia welcomed from its earliest days traders from India, the Middle East, China, and Europe. Many settled, becoming part of the country’s some 350 ethnic groups, who speak more than 700 languages and comprise a mosaic of diverse religious traditions. The country has embraced to varying degrees since independence its founding principles of democracy, social justice, unity, and religious tolerance. But after 1998, the progress on each of these goals has been undeniably impressive.

To be sure, Indonesians would be the first to admit they still face challenges. Terrorist groups like Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) continue to recruit followers and in recent years have targeted the Indonesian National Police. Though firmly rejected by mainstream Indonesians and the government, hundreds of Indonesians are believed to have joined extremist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq. Indonesia shares our concerns about the threats posed by the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL). It moved quickly to condemn ISIL as a violent, extremist movement, close its websites in Indonesia and scrutinize the passports of prospective travelers. Indonesia also has pockets of intolerance. Small radical groups target sects such as the Ahmadiyya and attack Christian churches. But these are the exception. The vast majority embrace traditional tolerance and moderation. We therefore have a strong interest in intensifying cooperation to promote democracy and tolerance in regions where these values are under threat.

I am confident we will find a willing partner. For the last six years Indonesia has hosted the Bali Democracy Forum to promote and foster regional and international cooperation in the field of peace and democracy through dialogue, based on sharing experiences and best practices that adhere to the principle of equality, mutual respect, and under­standing. Indonesia’s think tanks have shared its democratic experience with coun­tries ranging from Burma to Egypt and Yemen. And Secretary Kerry signed with Indonesian Foreign Minister Natalegawa in February 2014 a MOU to intensify our joint cooperation with third countries.

To conclude, Indonesia is a country of growing importance and influence in the world. While it is likely to maintain its “free and active” foreign policy that avoids align­ment with any one country, its open, multi-religious, multi-ethnic society, democratic progress, and growing economic weight suggest that Indonesia is well-positioned to play an increasingly active and positive role on the world stage. Its new President is likely to tackle with vigor challenges such as fighting corruption, modernizing infrastructure, and enhancing workforce skills in order to further spur growth and reduce poverty. He will find in the United States a strong friend and enthusiastic partner.