09 April 2009

Thoughts on Indonesian elections

Much was made this week, rightly, of President Obama's trip to Turkey, a NATO member, majority Muslim nation, applicant to the EU, and key strategic partner in winding down the Iraq war. As important as Turkey is strategically to the United States, we can't end our conversation with the Muslim world there, of course.

The most populous majority Muslim nation in the world, Indonesia, is going to be absolutely critical for the U.S. in the coming decades - for outreach to the Muslim world and for U.S. diplomatic and strategic progress in Asia. Indonesia is the 4th most populous nation in the world (full table of populous nations here, the results of which may surprise you, or if you want to challenge yourself and have fun stop reading this and take the Sporcle quiz) and a rising economic power, with the 17th largest economy in the world and a year on year growth rate of 6.8% in 2008 and projected at 5.5% for 2009 (Asia Times Online). It stretches across the second most strategic location in the world, from Thailand to the Philippines to Australia. Anything being transported on the surface of the earth from East Asia (and the #1, 12, 14, 15, and 25th most populous nations) to India (#2), Africa and Europe (were the EU a single nation it would be next at #4) has to go through Indonesia. Anything being transported on the surface of the earth the other direction, from the EU, India, Pakistan (#8), and Bangladesh (#9) to East Asia goes through Indonesia. Singapore is four miles away; Malaysia, another moderate, rising Muslim nation, shares a long land and sea border. Even in 2009 shipping routes matter, and with standardization of the 40ft container and multi-national corporations continuing to chase cheap wages around the globe, this will likely continue to be the case. Indonesia's continued stability is critical, it's a growing power, and if the relationship is well-managed Indonesia could be a very helpful ally, advocate for U.S. interests, contributor to global stability in places like Afghanistan and the Sudan, and counter-weight to China. Were it to implode or disintegrate, and there are significant independence movements in Aceh and Irian Jaya, were it no longer a strong central state able to ensure open shipping lanes throughout the Straits of Malacca - unlike, say, Somalia, a failed state in whose vacuum pirates have flourished - were it be radicalized away from secularism and towards a more militant form of Islam than what is currently practiced, it's not too much to say that the global economy would be severely disrupted.

(Were I pursuing a PhD in urban planning I'd love to investigate what exactly the implications of this would be - stronger north-south inter-American hemispheric ties and the continued maturation of Brazilian and Argentinean economies due to increased access to US markets? Stronger U.S. partnerships with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines due to their loss of access to European and Indian markets? Overland infrastructure - bullet trains, perhaps? - from China's manufacturing centers through Kazakhstan and Russia to Europe? The overthrow of Egypt's [#17] corrupt and ineffective government, finally, due to a sharp drop in foreign reserves generated by the Suez Canal and the resulting inability of the state to uphold its social contract? In any event, it would be disruptive.)

There was an election there yesterday and this morning, our time, and it was fair, democratic, peaceful, and well attended. Those results are all good news for a young democracy - there have been free and fair elections only since 1998. It's also likely good news that the moderate centrist Democratic party of the current President won, and that all Islamist parties together combined for under 26% of the vote. (The Straits Times [Singapore] has its usual good coverage on the preliminary results.)

After presidential elections this summer we'll know more about how fast and in what direction Indonesia will be able to move; if Yudhoyono has a large enough bloc of votes in parliament to form a singly party government without coalition partners and to move forward on reforms, it will likely mean continued economic progress, stability and transparency, which would also likely mean good news for many Indonesians, Americans, and a certain former resident who now lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in DC. We need all the friends in the Muslim world we've got, and after his charm offensive in Turkey don't be surprised if President Obama speaks to the Parliament in Jakarta.

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