Indonesia has just concluded its annual legislative session by adopting reforms that could transform the nation’s politics. During its two-week session, the People’s Consultative Assembly agreed to ease the military out of politics and to let voters directly elect the president. These are potentially far-reaching changes, but they are only “potential” changes. Without a genuine democratic culture, the new arrangements will only render old relationships invisible and harder to check.

Change was expected at this year’s session and the legislators did not disappoint. The legislature voted by acclamation to abolish by 2004 the 38 seats reserved for the military in the assembly. Former President Suharto guaranteed the security forces a presence in the legislature when he seized power in the 1960s. That role helped backstop the idea that the military was an essential element of the Indonesian political system and its civil society.

Even after the democratic uprising in 1998 that drove Mr. Suharto from office, the military protected its role and its presence in the new constitution. That document called for the military to retreat from politics by 2009, but there were doubts about the viability of that timetable. It is to Indonesia’s credit that last week’s vote moved the schedule forward, not back.

While conservatives fought any change, young officers pushed for reform. They recognized that a professional military has no role to play in politics. Worse, the military’s presence served as a lightning rod for criticism, inviting abuse by senior politicians as well as military figures eager to play a political role — or to protect their own perquisites. Reformers acknowledged that the only way the military could fulfill its mission would be to rise above politics.

Now military leaders will be tempted to continue to exercise power and influence behind the scenes. Those efforts will be even harder to check since none of their activities will occur in public arenas. Moreover, as the only functioning truly national institution, the military’s leverage is considerable. For example, President Megawati Sukarnoputri relied on the generals to help oust her predecessor, Mr. Abdurrahman Wahid.

The critical task is ensuring civilian control over the military. That was not an issue during the Suharto period, but it now tops the Indonesian administrative agenda. In this, foreign friends of Indonesia can play a role. They must push for “professionalization” of the military at every opportunity. The language is important. No matter how true such accusations may be, speaking of human rights only alienates the military. A focus on “professionalizing” the services can achieve the same result without the anger and resentment.

Helping Indonesia is a special opportunity for the Japan-U.S. partnership. The two countries can press on two fronts. While Japan has leverage by virtue of its economic assistance and business presence, the U.S. can deal directly with the military. But Washington walks a fine line. It must engage the services without encouraging them to reassert themselves in the political process. Earlier human rights abuses forced the U.S. Congress to cut off all aid to the military. There are fears that attempts to recruit Indonesia into the antiterror coalition could send the wrong signal. It is better to start with support for the police forces — as the U.S. has done in its latest aid package.

A second important change is the legislature’s decision to have the president elected by direct election. Since the country gained independence after World War II, the national assembly has acted as an electoral college, selecting the president for a five-year term. Democrats have pushed for direct election since the prodemocracy demonstrations of 1998. The assembly accepted a two-stage process that calls for a runoff if no candidate wins an outright majority in the first round of voting. Given the strength of the office of the presidency, a direct vote would provide real legitimacy for a strong ruler.

The legislative session also deserves credit for what it did not do: It did not adopt Shariah, or Islamic, law. Islamic legislators have called for such a move in every session since 1998, and they have been defeated each time. The decision to reject the Shariah helps consolidate Indonesia’s image as a moderate Muslim state and its influence within Southeast Asia and the Muslim world.

The big winner of the session is President Megawati. She is popular and the national assembly decisions provide her ways to consolidate her power when she faces re-election in 2004. But it is also clear that Indonesia’s political culture is not yet democratic. Power is still exercised behind the scenes. Transparency is still lacking; accountability too. But last week’s national assembly decisions were a step in the right direction.

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