Over the next few days, you will see and hear commentary on how Indonesia’s election is—or should be — an inspiration for all of Islam. It is proof, the commentators will say, that Islam is not antithetical to democracy. This is an old trope, too frequently embraced by Western political leaders, such as David Cameron and Hillary Clinton. Its subtext is not subtle: If only the Arabs could be more like the Indonesians, they too could enjoy the fruits of democracy and nonviolent transfers of power. And the world would be a much more peaceful place. That view is highly patronizing, of Indonesians, of Arabs and of Muslims in general. …
After years of living and traveling in Arab countries, I am not persuaded that people there need the inspiration of a “Muslim democracy,” if such a thing even existed. I was a correspondent in Baghdad in 2004, when the current Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was first elected. Iraq was four months away from its first post-Saddam election. People there looked forward to a chance to cast their votes freely, and there was a great deal of discussion about democracy. I cannot recall a single instance where anybody invoked Indonesia as an inspiration. Nor was there much reference to nearby democracies, like Turkey. Iraqis were already familiar with the mechanics of voting, even though the “elections” under Saddam were pure sham. All they wanted was genuine choice.
Well, how about a “consolidated democracy”? That’s the term Jay Ulfelder uses in praising Indonesia’s progress:
By my reckoning, this outcome should increase our confidence that Indonesia now deserves to be called a consolidated democracy, where “consolidated” just means that the risk of a reversion to authoritarian rule is low. Democracies are most susceptible to those reversions in their first 15–20 years (here and here), especially when they are poor and haven’t yet seen power passed from one party to another (here).
Indonesia now looks reasonably solid on all of those counts. The current democratic episode began nearly 15 years ago, in 1999, and the country has elected three presidents from as many parties since then—four if we count the president-elect. Indonesia certainly isn’t a rich country, but it’s not exactly poor any more, either. With a GDP per capita of approximately $3,500, it now lands near the high end of the World Bank’s “lower middle income” tier. Together, those features don’t describe a regime that we would expect to be immune from authoritarian reversal, but the elections that just occurred put that system through a major stress test, and it appears to have passed.