The winds of change that swept through the Arab world in 2012 heralded a democratic revolution, the so-called Arab Spring, in North Africa and parts of the Middle East.

Egypt’s Mubarak was removed and Libya’s dictator Gaddafi was killed. A new dawn for two of North Africa’s most influential countries seemed to have arrived as their peoples sought a truly democratic future.

A Yogyakarta resident votes in the 2009 presidential election. Photo by danuprimanto.

For many in the west, including Australia, the Arab Spring gave reason to hope that Islam and democracy could coexist.

But today, things look very different, particularly in Egypt where a popularly elected government has been overthrown by the army, and the elected President imprisoned. So perhaps the doubters were right: Islam and democracy cannot exist side-by-side.

And yet this conclusion overlooks another example of the overthrow of a long-standing military-backed dictator by a popular uprising in a Muslim-majority country: Indonesia. Here, the picture looks a lot more positive, albeit with some issues of concern as well.

It is now nearly 16 years since long-time Indonesian President Suharto resigned from office, amid massive social unrest and violence, including shootings of demonstrators and mass rapes of ethnic Chinese women in Jakarta, and economic meltdown. At the time, even the most optimistic commentators would have been reluctant to bet on a peaceful transition to democracy.

Yet in the intervening years, much has been achieved. Indonesia has held three sets of national elections, including a ground-breaking direct election of the President, together with innumerable provincial and local government elections.

Significantly, a president seeking a second term of office has been defeated – and a peaceful transition made to a new president.

In national elections, the proportion of the vote going to Islamic parties – and here we use a fairly loose definition of that term, to include avowedly Islamist parties as well as more liberal Islamic ones – is on the decline. At the last national parliamentary elections held in 2009, Islamic parties picked up about 25% of the vote, compared with 35% in 2004, and 34% in 1999. Although Indonesia is clearly experiencing something of a theological and social revival of Islam, this is clearly not yet translating into the electoral arena.

A massive process of decentralisation has taken place, shifting power away from Jakarta to the provinces, cities and districts. The Indonesian press is the most free in the region. And the military have all but disappeared from the formal political arena.

Interestingly though, while this has been happening in Indonesia, here in Australia we are bringing the military into politics; most obviously General Angus Campbell, Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, General Peter Leahy, the Prime Minister’s personal envoy to President Yudhoyono, and also General Peter Cosgrove, the incoming Governor General.

Indonesia’s economy is now talked about in the same breath as the likes of India, South Africa and Mexico. Its annual growth rate for the last couple of years has been second only to China.

And on the social front, whereas during the Suharto era anti-Chinese violence was almost a fact of daily life, since his fall there has been virtually no such outbursts. Indonesians of ethnic Chinese background have played an increasingly important role in national life, including the political. Cabinet ministers of ethnic Chinese descent attract attention according to their performance, rather than their ethnicity.

Civil society remains vibrant and engaged. Indonesia has long had two of the largest voluntary organisations in the world in the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah: both Islamic-based, with histories going back to the colonial era. Even under the Suharto regime they managed to maintain their independence. Today they are still massive organisations running schools, orphanages, hospitals and the like, though they have perhaps been less adroit in adapting to the new political climate than some other, smaller organisations.

All of this in a country with almost as many Muslims as in the whole of the Middle East. Impressive.

But real as these achievements are, there’s a down side to Indonesia’s recent history as well. Put bluntly, in many respects Indonesia’s progress towards consolidating its democracy is in danger of stalling.

Take the electoral process. There’s no denying that Indonesia today is an electoral democracy: a country with a political system where power rests with those elected to office through reasonably open and free elections.

This year, Indonesia embarks on yet another round of elections, for the national parliament, the Presidency and for nearly 20,000 seats in provincial and local assemblies.

All elections in Indonesia’s post Suharto history have been, in important ways, crucial ones for the consolidation of Indonesian democracy. But those coming up this year are more important than most.

There is a clear feeling amongst many of Indonesia’s estimated 187 million potential voters — 67 million of whom are first-time voters — that electoral democracy has not ‘delivered the goods’. The political system has proved very vulnerable to manipulation, especially by those with deep pockets. The main beneficiaries of the political system are seen to be the established political elites, and the political parties they lead.

Thus the crucial question to be asked about the coming elections is not which party will win most votes, but what the voter turnout will be. In 2004 86% of voters cast a ballot in the national parliamentary elections. By 2009 this had fallen to 74% — still a very respectable figure for a society where voting is not compulsory. But some commentators are suggesting this year; the turnout may be only around 50%.

The nomination by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) of the Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo (or ‘Jokowi’ as he is affectionately known) as a candidate for president has however, provided hope for many. Jokowi is hugely popular and highly respected despite his lack of national political experience. Polls indicate that as a candidate for the presidency he will win, and win quite easily. The recent floods in Jakarta might have damaged his reputation slightly, but nowhere near enough to threaten his lead.

The only currently viable alternative to Jokowi is Prabowo Subianto, retired Commanding General of the Army’s Special Forces, and a man with war crimes allegations handing over his head.

In terms of the economy, while the macro economy may be doing well, the gap between rich and poor is widening. The same phenomenon besets many rapidly-growing economies, including China, but it is of particular significance in Indonesia when combined with the declining legitimacy of the political system.

Indonesia also faces huge challenges in addressing its massive infrastructure requirements including roads, power, ports and communications, and also driving the need to reform its outdated labour laws and up-skilling of its workforce.

And corruption continues to dominate so much of Indonesian business and political life, contributing further to the sense of frustration and disillusionment among many of its citizens.

But perhaps the most damaging development has been the growth, in recent years, of Islamist extremism. Not to terrorist bombings, which have in fact declined quite significantly, but rather the growth of radical, above-ground Islamist groups.

Organisations such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the Islamic Community Forum (FUI) aspire to a more fundamentalist Indonesia and their supporters have been increasingly aggressive in pushing for this goal. Acts of violence, not only against Christian minorities, but also – and perhaps more significantly — against fellow Muslims such as members of the Shia and Ahmadiyyah communities, have become increasingly common and more brutal.

In almost every case the SBY government has done nothing; choosing to stand back and let the violence and killings proceed unchecked. Simultaneously, a number of convicted terrorists have now been released from jail. This worries many Indonesians. It should also worry their neighbours, including Australia.

So does Indonesia provide a more positive response to the Islam and democracy question than the Middle East with its Arab Spring? Yes it does – but the situation is still fluid. On balance, democracy, in some form or other, will survive in Indonesia and perhaps eventually flourish, alongside a relatively liberal Islam. But the struggle is by no means over.

Democratic consolidation is often harder than ending authoritarian rule.

Colin Brown is an Adjunct Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University in Brisbane, and Ross B. Taylor AM is the President of the WA-based Indonesia Institute.

This article from the West Australian, Saturday 15th March originally appeared at Our Indonesia Today. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Australia-Indonesia Youth Association or its partners.