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Indonesia: Democracy, Islam do mix

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Cynics in the West argue that Islam and democracy don't mix.

Democracy can't work in a Muslim country like Afghanistan, they say, because of the dictatorial grip of the warlords. It won't work in Iraq because the country is in chaos. It won't work in Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, or the rest of the Arab world because of autocratic rulers and Muslim extremists.

Such critics in the US conveniently dismiss the presence of some 4 million to 7 million Muslims in their land who remain true to their religion but thrive under democracy and revere it. But even in predominantly Muslim nations there are examples of burgeoning democracy.

One such nation - the largest Muslim country in the world - is Indonesia. Its 216 million people have survived colonialism under the Dutch, a slide toward communism under Sukarno, an abortive coup attempt that led to a nationwide bloodletting, years of corrupt dictatorship under Suharto, violent separatist upheavals and religious tensions, and a flurry of Al Qaeda-style terrorism.

By all measures, Indonesia should be an international basket case, difficult terrain for democracy. Yet with all its past turmoil, it is moving purposely through a complicated election process in which the once tender shoots of democracy are blooming healthily.

Earlier this month, Indonesians went to the polls in the country's first direct presidential election. A runoff between the two top candidates will take place in September. Hitherto, Indonesian presidents have been appointed by the legislature.

Megawati Sukarnoputri (daughter of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno) who has served as president for the past three years, seems unlikely to survive the runoff. Her presidency has been a time of stability, but she has not been dynamic in addressing Indonesia's many problems. Her likely successor is a former Army general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who won the most votes in the July 5 polls. He would be a welcome contrast to another former military leader, General Wiranto, who came in third.


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