Calm Transition Shows Indonesia Outshining Thailand

Transparency, or the lack of it, is providing a clear contrast between Southeast Asia’s two largest economies, one of which is cementing a well-deserved reputation for messy but peaceful democratic rule while the other is growing increasingly opaque under military control.

While Thailand lingers in doubt over its future under a military junta, the aftermath of a bitter and potentially divisive presidential election in Indonesia is proving to be remarkably calm and open. This past week, retired General Prabowo Subianto filed a challenge to his defeat July 9 by a margin of roughly 8 million votes with the Constitutional Court, but there is scarcely any tension over the fact. Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudoyono, who endorsed Prabowo, quickly called for all sides to accept the election result and everyone but Prabowo seems to have signed on to the appeal.

Pre-election fears that Prabowo, a once-fearsome Suharto-era officer with a tattered human rights record, could somehow cause mayhem to reverse the result seem to have had little basis. Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is the president-elect and that’s that.

After thundering loudly that the election was massively fraudulent and that democracy had been subverted, Prabowo’s legal filing was posted online by the court this week and almost immediately was being picked apart on Indonesian websites. Prabowo is becoming an object of ridicule, not fear.

In addition, the country’s media quickly chased down election officials who refuted claims made by Prabowo that 5,000 polling stations in Jakarta were suspect and that as many as 21 million votes could be reversed nationwide. Those officials have said they are happy to testify in court.

“Welcome to the new transparent Indonesia,” said a senior government official who laughed when I asked him if Prabowo constituted a threat to the orderly transfer of power to Jokowi. “He’s become a joke,” said the man. “This is the end of Prabowo’s political career.”

Contrast this peaceful transition with Thailand, where a long battle between ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the military, royalists and an amorphous Bangkok “elite” has consumed the country for over a decade. As a result, two military coups in seven years have largely destroyed the country’s once-gleaming democratic reputation, with disturbing consequences for Southeast Asia.

So onerous are the restrictions on public debate issued by the military’s National Council for Peace and Order, which is what the government calls itself, that criticism of the junta that seized power on May 22 is outlawed, academics are hunted down for opposing the coup and media censorship is routine – with access even to many foreign websites being routinely blocked within the country.

Most disturbing is the complete lack of transparency as Thailand sorts out its future. The coup came after a political crisis that was seemingly manufactured only to remove the Shinawatra clan from power without benefit of an election. In the aftermath of the coup, the entire region is left to wonder what will become of Southeast Asia’s No. 2 economy.

Has this all been done only to serve the Thai royal family, powerful business interests or entrenched elites facing a challenge from Thaksin and Co., whose political parties have won every election since 2001? If the military, as is widely suspected, concocts a new political system designed primarily to prevent the popular will in the rural north and northeast of the country – where support for Thaksin is strong – from prevailing in the future, it seems doubtful that Thailand will soon emerge from this sullen crisis.

This is not to say that Thaksin or his proxies represent a fresh wind of change for the country in the same way that Jokowi has energized Indonesia. But trying to rig the game in favour of status quo political forces who can’t win an election not only stunts Thailand’s political development, it makes it unlikely that a real alternative – a Thai Jokowi, perhaps – can emerge.

Thailand’s future instead is clouded by rumor and conjecture. Will ousted Premier Yingluck Shinawatra return from her current trip abroad or will she join her elder brother Thaksin in exile? If she comes back to face mounting legal challenges, will the courts act fairly in deciding her fate? Can the public trust this game at any level?

For the rest of the region, a key economic player in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ promised 2015 economic integration is thrown into continued uncertainty due to intrigue more akin to the royal houses of medieval Europe than a modern nation state. This can only damage ASEAN as a whole.

Indonesia, on the other hand, knows what to expect. Barring a truly unforeseen outcome, by August 20 or so the Prabowo challenge will have been thrown out of court and on October 20, Jokowi will assume office, having completed a remarkable journey from small-city mayor to president.

Jokowi was opposed by most of the country’s largest political parties and he was the target of a vicious negative campaign. He ran an underfunded and poorly organized race, while Prabowo is said by insiders to have spent as much as US$400 million since 2009 in pursuit of a prize he has coveted since his youth.

But Jokowi is truly popular, instilling in his followers a hope for the future that would be the envy of any politician anywhere. To the credit of Indonesia – and despite Prabowo’s peevish tirades – the votes appear to have been fairly and openly counted.

This is not to say that Jokowi will be an effective president or that the many challenges ahead can easily be overcome. But there will almost certainly be no bruising street battles or military intervention. Even Prabowo’s closest supporters admit privately that he has lost, while his coalition partners are quietly making plans to support the new administration once it comes to power.

Indonesia has gotten it right, and that lesson should not be lost on the family dynasties, political hacks and backroom dealmakers who dominate political systems throughout ASEAN. The first student for a class in more transparent and democratic government might obviously be the Thai military. Perhaps the generals could have a useful chat with President Jokowi sometime soon.

This article originally appeared in Edge Review, a weekly digital magazine about Southeast Asia.