- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 3, 2004

As many as 147 million Indonesians will go to the polls tomorrow to select members of parliament. In July, they will directly elect their president for the first time ever. This is a big step for a nation that was under military rule just six years ago and still a Dutch colony 55 years ago. Popular suffrage has its risks. Foremost among the dangers is that the world’s most populous Muslim nation could vote in large numbers for radical Islamist parties and candidates. The failure of secular politics in Southeast Asian elections would doom the war on terror in that part of the world.

The majority of Indonesian Muslims are not fundamentalists. Their brand of Islam for the most part is mixed up with native animist and other ancient tribal superstitions. Radical imams have used Jakarta’s cooperation with Washington against terror groups as a cause celebre to stir up nationalist animosity under the direction of Islamic political parties.

Last week, more than 100,000 supporters packed a stadium in Jakarta to cheer on candidates from the Prosperous Justice Party, which advocated instituting Sharia nationwide. Many voters complain that President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesia Democratic Party Struggle and former President Suharto’s Golkar Party are too corrupt because they are too secular. Islamist parties are expected to triple their vote count this year, which would give them sway when a new cabinet is created. Vice President Hamzah Hah, who has spoken publicly in favor of Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiya, is gaining in popularity.

The March 21 election in Malaysia offers hope that things may not turn for the worst in Indonesia. Against many predictions, the secular government soundly defeated the radical Islamist parties. The most important victories were in the states of Terrenganu and Kelantan, which had pro-Sharia majorities for years. Like Indonesia, Malaysia is majority-Muslim and a center for al Qaeda recruiting and planning. The Malaysians’ rejection of Islamic parties could be the first sign that people in the region are distancing themselves from the violence and trouble caused by the extremists in their midst.

National elections also will take place in the Philippines on May 10. While the former U.S. colony is at most 5 percent Muslim, a civil war in its southern islands has raged for decades and thousands of terrorists have been trained at al Qaeda-linked camps there. Government instability and systemic corruption in the military have undermined attempts to subdue Islamic separatist guerrillas. With significant aid from President Bush, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has made progress vanquishing the Abu Sayyaf, but she has not cleaned up the officer ranks under her. If Filipinos keep her in the presidency, military reform should be an immediate priority. The long fight against Islamic terror cannot be won when soldiers are routinely bribed to aid the enemy.

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