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Jimmy Carter: Surprisingly Fair Elections in Indonesia

By Jimmy Carter

This op-ed was originally published in the July 15, 2004, edition of the International Herald Tribune.

ATLANTA.... In the United States, especially in Washington and in media reports, there is an obsession with violence and terrorism and a pervasive sense of confrontation between Christians and Muslims. This stereotyping extends to governance, with the generalized belief that Muslim societies are averse to truly democratic governance.

The peaceful and relatively smooth first round of the presidential election in Indonesia last week, which I witnessed with observers from the Carter Center, refutes those ideas.

After strongmen Sukarno and Suharto ruled the country for 53 years, a political miracle rapidly evolved. Suharto had hand-picked as his vice-president a non-political scientific advisor, B.J. Habibie, who became chief executive when Suharto was forced from office in May 1998. Habibie repealed many unpopular edicts of his predecessor, provided for rule of law and respect for human rights, and initiated a genuine democratic process for choosing a parliament and a president. As a long-time personal friend, he called upon me and the Carter Center for advice and support and, with the National Democratic Institute, we monitored the June 1999 election.

Forty-eight political parties competed for 500 parliament seats, with 200 other legislators added to accommodate disfranchised groups such as the military, police and other professionals. The full Parliament then elected Abdurrahman Wahid as president and Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of former President Sukarno, as vice president. Wahid was accused of incompetence and impeached in July 2001, and in October, Megawati will complete the five-year term as chief executive.

Extending 3,200 miles across the Southern Pacific and Indian Oceans north of Australia, with 235 million inhabitants of 100 ethnic groups speaking 300 different languages and dialects, Indonesia is an extremely diverse and complex society.

It is by far the largest Islamic nation: Muslims comprise 87 percent of the population. Overwhelmingly moderate, this dominant religious group joins Christians, Hindus and others in embracing a secular government.

The constitution has been changed to permit direct election of the president and vice president. An election commission (KPU), comprising nine college professors, controls the uniform nationwide process. A constitutional court composed of three members appointed by the president, three by the parliament, and three by the supreme court (five of them are professors) quickly settles all disputes arising from the electoral process, and its judgments are final.

Following the April 2004 parliamentary elections, the court made rapid investigations and rendered decisions in 273 disputed cases, 15 of which changed the identity of the victorious candidates. There is almost universal respect for the fairness, and integrity of the KPU and the court, and all of the rulings were accepted without dissension.

One of the most remarkable facets of Indonesia's rapid and successful adoption of a democratic government has been the unequalled involvement of domestic observers in the electoral process. More than 200,000 volunteer observers were recruited, trained, and deployed during the 1999 election, and a like number have helped to monitor elections this year.

Their role is recognized and welcomed by the official election authorities, and they have developed a private vote tabulation, or quick count, system that is so objective and accurate that their election results are accepted as definitive - subject, of course, to official tabulations in extremely close or contested elections.

Once again, on July 5, about 86 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots, and the process was observed to be free, fair, and safe.

To be elected president, a candidate is required to receive a clear majority plus at least 20 percent of the votes in more than half of the provinces.

The top candidate, with 33 percent of the votes, was former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, known as SBY, who had gained political favor from public disputes with presidents Wahid and Megawati over what the public considered to be matters of principle. Unofficial results showed Megawati in second place, with 27 percent, so there will be a runoff election Sept. 20 between the two.

Despite strong differences among the candidates and intense campaigning throughout the enormous archipelago, there have been no reported instances of violence.

This happens to be the 50th election monitored by the Carter Center in different parts of the world, all of them in nations that were facing some kind of crisis or problem in their electoral process - either a form of dictatorship making a transition to democracy or an established democracy under serious threat.

A milestone for us, this election also was a significant step forward for democracy worldwide. The people of Indonesia are providing a dramatic example of peaceful political change, and firmly negating the claim that Muslim societies are anti-democratic.

It is interesting to note that, of the world's three largest democracies, the overwhelming majority of their populations have different religious faiths: Hindus in India, Christians in the United States and Muslims in Indonesia. This is a good message for Americans to absorb.

Jimmy Carter, the former president of the United States, is chairman of the Carter Center in Atlanta, a nongovernmental organization advancing peace and health worldwide.

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