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Indonesia’s Democratic Transition: Twenty Years On

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Basil Bowdler


Twenty years ago Indonesia saw decades of military rule under the dictator Suharto collapse amid rampant inflation and violent secessionist movements. Since then, Indonesia’s government has undergone a remarkable transformation into a stable democracy, turning the world’s fourth most populous country and largest Muslim-majority nation into a thriving economic power. This transformation is particularly noteworthy when compared against Indonesia’s East Asian neighbours. According to Freedom House, a DC-based NGO, only South Korea, Taiwan, and Mongolia have made comparable developments towards becoming free democracies; on Freedom House’s ‘Freedom in the World’ scale, Indonesia has gone from a 6.5 (where 7 is the highest score, marking a country as entirely ‘not free’) to a 3 in 2014.


The nature of Indonesia’s transition to democracy also markedly differs from these other East Asian examples. Mongolia democratised once its northern protector, the USSR, tottered and fell. In both Taiwan and South Korea, democratisation occurred as both states underwent rapid industrialisation and middle class constituencies, lobbying for political power, grew in importance. Indonesia’s GDP per capita at the time of democratisation was not only far lower than South Korea’s and Taiwan’s at comparable junctures, but was also low for the region: $1,154 per capita compared to the East Asian and Pacific average of $4,010.


Indonesia has also faced the challenge of democratising a country with massive ethnic and religious diversity. Indonesia consists of over 6,000 inhabited islands which are home to hundreds of different ethnic and linguistic groups. Though 87% of Indonesians identify as Muslim, there are, besides other faiths, significant Hindu, Buddhist and Christian groups. These groups have not always been at peace. The years of Suharto’s New Order regime saw heavy-handed, and increasingly brutal, attempts to take control of East Timor and the early 2000s witnessed significant violence, such as the Bali bombings of 2002, as different ethnic groups sort to settle old scores, vie for local pre-eminence or, in some cases, break away from the state. Democracy in Indonesia has endured these upheavals to become a stable system. Indeed, Indonesia’s very diversity has served as a model for promoting unity, as nationalists have been forced to forge inclusionary national models unlike those of Sri Lanka and Malaysia, where nationalism has frequently been defined around majority ethnic identities. Nothing appears to better encapsulate this than Suharto’s New Order national motto, derived from a 13th century Javanese poem: ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ – ‘Unity in Diversity’.


Democracy in Indonesia has endured these upheavals to become a stable system. Indeed, Indonesia’s very diversity has served as a model for promoting unity.

Stability also owes much, however, to systems of patronage in Indonesian politics at both the national and local levels. The cabinets of Indonesian governments, until recently, have been ‘rainbow cabinets’ with all, or at least most, of the major political parties sharing out political offices; a pattern that was upended when Joko Widodo or Jokowo, Indonesia’s current president, declined to form a cabinet across pan-political lines. The decentralisation of political power and financial resources in the post-New Order era has encouraged local elites to contest among themselves locally, rather than challenge the centre of power in Jakarta. All this has helped neutralise the potentially explosive forces of local secessionists. It is a sign of the progress Indonesia has made that even Papuan separatists use Bahasa Indonesian, which is broadly supported as both the official language and lingua franca of Indonesia. Religious political movements, which elsewhere in South Asia continue to be volatile forces, have largely been appeased through a government policy of according official status to major monotheistic religions and generously distributing patronage to religious movements, largely avoiding any potential alienation. Indeed, while Islamic political parties hold a certain sway within the Indonesian government system, they have never come close to a majority.


However, the ghost of the New Order remains within Indonesian politics. The military elites of the Suharto era have, in many cases, hung onto access to power, and no military officer has yet to be successfully prosecuted for human rights abuses. Indonesia is still economically dominated by the conglomerates that arose under Suharto and received his tacit blessing. Indeed, democratisation has not led to greater equality in Indonesian society. The incomes of poor and near-poor families have all but stagnated while the number of Indonesian millionaires and billionaires has sharply risen, despite the fact that frustration with social inequality was one of the factors that brought the New Order regime to its knees. Indonesia’s democracy has also failed to address gender inequality: after the 2014 elections just 17.3% of representatives were women, compared to the world average of 22% and the Asian average of 18.5%. In this respect, Indonesia appears to be reverting: the nation’s place on the UN Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index slipped from 100th in 2011 to 103rd in 2013.


Indonesia’s transformation, then, is far from complete. The ‘Pancalicca ideology’ of Suharto, which propounded that Indonesia was an organic state in which the rights of the individual were subsumed to those of society, is still occasionally invoked by political leaders who argue that Indonesia isn’t culturally suited for democracy. The 2014 elections were in many ways a battle between the old and new Indonesia: current President Jokowo ran on the back of his reformist and anti-corruption credentials while his opponent, former New Order general Prabowo Subianto, attempted to channel nostalgia for the Suharto era. Jokowo’s victory seems to have underlined Indonesia’s desire for democratic stability: the ascension of the 7th President of Indonesia was also the first time that power passed directly from one democratically elected president to another, and Jokowo is the first president not to come from an elite or military background. Deeply committed to cracking down on corruption, the President is known for having paid 11 million rupiah ($800) out of his own pocket to claim a signed vinyl Metallica album presented to him by the Danish Prime Minister, in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety.


Indonesia has progressed far in the last twenty years, and much within this transformation deserves to be celebrated. Indonesia’s transition to democracy has not been without problems, however: while stability and economic prosperity are worthy goals, it should not be forgotten that all-too often success has come for political and local elites at the cost of most Indonesians. As Jokowo’s presidency draws to a close and Indonesians begin to cast their minds to their political future, questions of corruption and government transparency still have to be addressed. Power sharing and patronage have historically sustained politics in Indonesia and more recently have stabilised the country’s democratic system. While Jokowo’s aims to stamp out corruption therefore have much to admire in them, alternative systems must be found in order to keep Indonesia together, or there is potential that religious and ethnic tensions will once again ignite this vast and complex nation. The case of Indonesia is unique, and the challenges facing this populous, ultra-diverse archipelago nation are singular.

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