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Pakistan and Indonesia Cast Their Vote

Pakistan and Indonesia Cast Their Vote

The world's most populous Islamic countries had major elections with major consequences for democracy.

David A. Andelman

Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, a seventy-two year-old general who for two decades was barred from the United States for his human rights abuses, coasted to victory as the nation's seventh president on February 14—a victory that he claimed even before the ballots were counted. Subianto is little more than a clone of the nation’s longtime dictator Suharto. Decades of poverty and oppression now seem unlikely to be erased in this, the world's largest election, in a year of contests that already are spanning the globe.

A week earlier in Pakistan, the Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan used an AI image and voice of their leader to trumpet victory in Pakistan's elections. The man himself was imprisoned on clearly trumped-up charges by the military-backed rulers, who quite rightly feared his popularity. But Khan and his supporters were quickly deprived of their electoral victory. Clearly, the Pakistani military was willing to do anything in this nominal democracy to assure Khan’s defeat. 

These two most populous Islamic nations both went to the polls over the last ten days. The losers were the democratic systems and the hopes of millions. These hopes foundered on the bedrock of corruption, kleptocracy, violence, and varying stretches of military rule and abuse, on which these systems have been based in the decades since their country’s independence. 

In Indonesia, 205 million people were registered to cast their ballots at 820,000 polling stations for more than 258,000 candidates from eighteen political parties, to fill some 20,000 posts scattered across this archipelago of 17,000 islands. The stakes were as staggering as the numbers—not the least of which involves the clash of titans, China and America, for the balance of power in Asia.

In Indonesia, sitting president Joko Widondo has thinned out many of the underpinnings of democracy; nevertheless, he remains immensely popular. Despite leaving office after ten years, Widondo has done his best during the election to hold onto much of the power he accumulated. A wily Subianto cleverly tapped Widondo's thirty-six year-old son, Gibran Rkabuming Raka, for his running mate—a gesture seen as an (apparently successful) effort to seduce large swaths of the powerful youth vote in this nation, where the median age is 29.9 years. Then, Widondo turned up the heat: his brother-in-law cast the deciding vote in the Constitutional Court to lower the age for vice presidents, clearing the way for his son's ambitions. The gambit seems to have worked. Subianto handily outdistanced his two opponents, Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo, former governors respectively of Jakarta and Central Java.

Under Widondo, Indonesia did post impressive growth, yet failed to deliver on even more elaborate promises. The pledge of repeated Indonesian rulers, (including now Subianto), has been for a staggering 7 percent growth rate, but each has barely managed to achieve 5 percent. During his tenure, Widondo has succeeded in balancing the nation's foreign trade, containing its debts, and embarking on a string of infrastructure projects that have seen paved roads arrive for the first time in some of the most remote villages. Still, some 60 percent of the population is considered moderately impoverished, living on under $5.50 per day, though that has tracked downward from the 98 percent level when I was first reporting on Indonesia in the late 1970s.

Those were the days of vast disparity between rich and poor, much of which persists despite legitimate efforts of Widondo and his regime. Some of the most flagrant abuses of the earlier years—Tien Suharto, the wife of Indonesia's second president and First Lady of Indonesia from 1967 until 1996, was commonly known as "Madam Tien Percent" for the level of payoffs necessary to consummate any substantial business deal in Indonesia—have been erased. But not all have been, entirely. 

Moreover, Subianto, who'd been expelled from the military after being found responsible for kidnapping political dissidents, has publicly suggested that Indonesia needs neither elections nor democracy. In this and many other respects, he is not dissimilar to the longtime, though determinedly pro-American dictator Suharto, with whom Subianto was long connected during his rise through the military. To highlight at least this one difference: During the campaign, one of Subianto’s opponents, Ganjar Pranowo, was seen campaigning with a T-shirt stenciled in English: "Join us in the fight for a clean government."

Indonesia faces many of the same problems as its other Southeast Asian neighbors. The world's fourth-most-populous country and second-largest Islamic nation is trying to cement its role as a leader in the region, while steering a perilous course between the two great global powers. Both China and the United States have enormous interests in close ties with Indonesia. Beyond its mineral riches—it ranks among the leading producers of coal, palm oil, and especially nickel—its vast jungles, even its volcanos, are critical to climate change and the global environment. 

As Indonesia's largest trading partner, China has been especially focused on cultivating two-way trade, which nearly doubled during Widondo's two terms. While Xi Jinping visited Indonesia three times, no American President has visited the country since Barack Obama did thirteen years ago. Still, China has been somewhat ham-handed in its treatment of Indonesia, especially regarding the South China Sea, not to mention a host of labor and environmental abuses in Chinese projects within Indonesia, from nickel mines to high-speed rails. 

And then there's Pakistan, with (narrowly) the world's largest Islamic population. Also aspiring to democracy, its election of ten days ago now seems to hold promise for little more than expanding chaos and shrinking democratic norms. Even more than in Indonesia, here the nation's rulers—but especially its military leadership—have shown little restraint in putting their thumbs on the electoral scale.

The nominal winner in the February 8 contest was and remains, in fact, in prison. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan's PTI party won, by official tally, 102 seats in the 336-seat National Assembly, with the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif coming in second with seventy-three seats, and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) third with fifty-four, with a handful of minor parties in the mix. The military had already seen to Khan's removal from the hustings by jailing him shortly before the vote. When Khan’s supporters surged to a stunning victory, the two opposing parties agreed to combine their seats in parliament, a coalition that represents a stunning confluence of political dynasties and intrigue.

The immediate beneficiary is Nawaz Sharif's brother, Shehbaz Sharif, since he is now poised to be Pakistan's new prime minister. But as it turns out, though the Sharifs had hoped never to have to embrace the left-leaning PPP, the real winners have been the two leading political dynasties of Pakistan—the Sharifs and the Bhuttos.  

Sharif's family was exiled to Saudi Arabia in 2000 by Pervez Musharraf, the army's chief of staff who served as the nation's president. The Sharifs have since reconciled with the army's leadership. The leader of the PPP party, meanwhile, is Asif Ali Zardari, whose wife Benazir Bhutto was assassinated while campaigning for re-election as prime minister in 2008. Bhutto had decided to join with Nawaz Sharif against Musharraf, who himself had come to power in a military coup in 1999. Ironically, Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif had committed never to join a military-backed government or to accept the military's blessing. Indeed, Bilawal Bhutto,  the thirty-five year-old son of Benazir and Asif Ali, and their PPP, while now agreeing to back a Sharif-led coalition, have at least for the moment declined to the join the new cabinet. However, Asif Ali Zardari was poised to become the president, which is not a major political power center. 

Clearly recent electoral happenings in Pakistan all have deep roots in this nation, certainly going back to the time General Zia-ul-Haq and a cadre of his officers seized power in 1977, overthrowing Benazir Bhutto’s immensely popular father Zulfikar Bhutto, and establishing what he proclaimed to be a true Islamic government governed by shariah law. I was at ul-Haq's first news conference—at the garish Intercontinental Rawalpindi Hotel just behind the military caserne—as he described, in a stunning performance and with some considerable relish, how a thief would be punished—a hand amputated, surgically, the skin peeled back, the bones separated. These days, the military are only slightly more subtle; the nation hardly a classical Islamic state, in this sense.

The question, of course, remains how stable this new government will be—and can be, in an immensely unstable neighborhood. Already, Khan's supporters have complained of massive vote-rigging, challenging in court the results of dozens of parliamentary seats, and firing up widespread protests that only promise to intensify. 

While nominally known as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it is in no sense as determinedly Islamic as neighboring Iran, nor as intensely violent as another metastable neighbor, Afghanistan. Pakistan is also an important nuclear power with a stockpile of at least 179 nuclear warheads, the vast bulk of them directed at neighboring Hindu India. India, in turn, targets the bulk of its 164 warheads on Pakistan, which unlike India, has never pledged a no-first-use policy.

At the same time, there continues to be a competition for the hearts, minds, and economies of both Pakistan and India by the global major powers. Under the Biden administration, there seems to have been a somewhat definitive tilt toward India, though the hardline rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is hardly more democratic at its foundations than Pakistan. Moreover, India has demonstrated a self-interested tilt toward Russia since the latter’s invasion of Ukraine, Modi availing himself of this sudden source of cheap oil that embargoes have prevented the Kremlin from peddling elsewhere.

In India—a nation of 1.4 million with a minority Muslim population of 204 million—Modi himself appeared to move jarringly this week even further from the democracy the country has cherished for much of its independence. Modi has already embarked on a string of efforts that opponents charge are aimed at protecting the Hindu majority that has been the foundation of his rule. Now, the leaders of the opposition Congress Party, which itself long ruled India under the Gandhi dynasty, disclosed that the government had frozen all their bank accounts just as the April-May election campaign is poised to begin. “The Congress party’s bank accounts haven’t been frozen. It’s the democracy that has been frozen,” said party treasurer Ajay Maken. “Will there be only a one party system in this country?”

Meanwhile, the United States has hardly been close to Imran Khan. Still, in the wake of this month's elections, the U.S. State Department attempted to come down on the side of democracy, observing, "we condemn electoral violence, restrictions on the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms," adding that "we are concerned about allegations of interference in the electoral process. Claims of interference or fraud should be fully investigated." How effective that will be in the clear absence of good will on either side remains to be seen.

One take-away from both February elections in both Indonesia and Pakistan is clear, however. The United States needs to focus on both nations as centerpieces of America's foreign policy priorities—or others will.

David A. Andelman is a foreign correspondent, writer and columnist. His SubStack page is Andelman Unleashedand he is a columnist for CNN. A former correspondent in Europe and Asia for The New York Times, he was Paris correspondent for CBS News and is a chevalier of France’s Legion d’Honneur. His latest book is A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen, plus its podcast.

Image: Prabowo Subianto during his time as general party chair of Gerinda, 2017 Gerindra Party National Working Meeting. (Wikimedia Commons: Gerindra Party/Dirgayuza)

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