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Indonesia's presidential election puts SE Asia's democracy to the test

Jokowi's pick of top Muslim cleric for VP poses risk to secular values

JAKARTA -- Indonesian President Joko Widodo secured a second five-year term on Wednesday in the country's fourth presidential election since former President Suharto's dictatorship collapsed in 1998.

Now, attention is focused on whether Indonesia can remain a beacon of democracy in Asia -- both in name and practice -- as the voices of conservative Muslims grow louder.

Politics have taken center stage in the region this year. Thailand's March 24 election marked the country's first step toward civilian rule since the 2014 military coup. India's general election kicked off on April 11 and the Philippines will hold midterm elections on May 13. Myanmar and Singapore will also hold elections in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

The Indonesian poll, which went off largely without a hitch, drew worldwide attention owing to the country's large population of 260 million and its advanced democracy -- especially considering that many other Asian countries have become increasingly authoritarian.

Indonesia ranked 101st among 204 countries and regions in the World Bank's 2017 democracy ranking, up from 160th in 1996 and the highest among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Moreover, Indonesia is only one of two ASEAN countries that have improved their rankings from 20 years ago, the other being 156th-ranked Myanmar, which transitioned to civilian rule in 2011.

Democracy in Southeast Asia was preceded by a wave of dictatorships, which prioritized economic development over political freedom. The Philippines -- where the 1986 People Power Revolution led to the fall of former President Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorship -- and Thailand have led the region's democratization since the mid-1980s.

Indonesia, however, did not democratize until the 1998 Asian currency crisis forced President Suharto to resign.

To catch up with other countries, Indonesia lifted restrictions on political parties in 1999 and introduced direct presidential elections in 2004, when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was voted into office. The former army officer was reelected in 2009, serving two five-year terms before stepping aside as mandated by the constitution.

The 2014 presidential election showed that Indonesia was truly democratic. Widodo, a former furniture maker and governor of Jakarta, beat former military general and Suharto son-in-law Prabowo Subianto. The populist Jokowi, as Widodo is called, became the first president from outside Indonesia's ruling elite, which is dominated by former army officers and other well-connected and wealthy individuals. Five years later, Widodo again defeated Prabowo.

With Thailand enduring two coups since the beginning of the century and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte drawing Western criticism for his extrajudicial crackdown on the drug trade, Indonesia was left as Asia's leading democracy. But the 2019 presidential election may have revealed cracks in the country's democratic foundations.

The question that loomed large in the world's eyes was which candidate the mainly Muslim country would vote for. Prabowo, whose family is Christian, was seen as a moderate Muslim. But he leaned heavily on Islamic hard-liners to beef up his strongman image and discredit the more secular Widodo, who himself is Muslim.

Since his first term, when he tabbed wealthy businessman Jusuf Kalla as his running mate, Widodo has tried hard to burnish his Muslim credentials. For this year's election, he chose Muslim cleric Ma'ruf Amin as his vice president. Amin, chairman of the Indonesia Ulema Council -- the nation's top clerical body -- was instrumental in Widodo's victory, but has been criticized by human rights groups and others critics for his religious intolerance and discriminatory views of sexual minorities.

After naming Amin as his running mate, Peter Mumford, an analyst at U.S. research company Eurasia Group, warned that religion would begin to play a greater role in Indonesian politics.

Despite Indonesia's national credo of "unity in diversity," the Muslim majority's antipathy toward minorities -- namely, ethnic Chinese who control most of the economy -- has led to bloodshed in the past.

If the conservative Muslim community grows stronger as a result of the recent election, the country's democratic values could be put to the test.

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