“ Political Transition in Indonesia”

“ Political Transition in Indonesia”

“ Political Transition in Indonesia” by Dr. Rizal Sukma, Center for trategic and International Studies, Indonesia

The events surrounding Indonesia’s transition from an authoritarian to a democratic form of government in 1998 was in the mode of “creative destruction” rather than negotiated. It also portrays the dramatic consequences of near economic collapse to mobilization efforts by democratic opposition forces, and their chance of success.
Prior to 1998, Indonesia had the trappings of a personalist, authoritarian system. Power is exercised by President Suharto whose sultanistic tendency extended political privilege to his family. Public criticism of policy and of ministers were allowed but not of himself and his family. The military, which propped up the dictatorship, acquired significant political roles. The military occupied 1/4 of the seats in the legislature, and commissar military officers oversee administration up to the local levels. The bureaucracy was strong but corrupt. Government development initiatives disproportionately benefited Java at the expense of other islands and ethnic groupings. The economic gap between the rural and urban Indonesians were so pronounced.

Despite the dictatorship’s muscular grip on political power, its economic institutions, particularly banking proved weak in the face of the 1997 Asian Financial crisis. The Suharto opposition used this economic problems as a means to put pressure on Suharto to liberalize. The May 1998 riots split the authoritarian ranks. Politicians and the military could not agree on how to respond to the rioters, and several ministers deserted the government. The traditional opposition, which was composed of modernist Muslims (Mohammedija), traditional Muslims, and secular nationalists (under Megawati), could not agree on the post-transition make up of government. A consensus point was then reached for the Vice President to success the President, and from there, establish the new rules of political the game. The lull period in 1999, however, provided opportunities for players from the old regime (e.g. the military) to reconsolidate.

The early post-transition years saw Indonesia embarking on ambitious reforms towards a democratic set-up. Electoral reforms, including the free formation of political parties and the creation of an independent election commission were undertaken. The constitution was amended to limit the President to two consecutive terms. Government’s power was slowly decentralized, providing autonomy not to governors but to districts. The military’s political power was curbed– their seats in the legislature scrapped, military commissars abolished, their functions and role in humanitarian intervention limited and defined, and the military command unified under a civilian President.The 2004 election was an important turning point for Indonesia. The election which featured multiple parties competing, was relatively peaceful, and subsequently led to a smooth transfer of power. In recent years, Indonesia has shown the slow erosion of patrimonialism in politics and the growing importance of institutions.

Nevertheless, Indonesian democracy continues to face difficulties. Political division persists between secular and Islamist forces. Diverse ethnicity remain a dormant force of patrimonialism. The challenge of reinventing the state is hampered by persistent questions on what and how to reform. Corruption continues to mar the government’s ability to deliver services. The military has not yet completely gone out of business nor has it disposed of its business assets.

Indonesia’s leaders need to manage three issues to ensure their democracy’s consolidation. They must learn how to shape public opinion, which has grown less supportive of democratization due to the ill economic effects of globalization. They must also restore national pride, by tackling the thorny issue of illegal Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia and Singapore. Creating jobs within the country, and diplomatic efforts for Indonesian migrant worker protection must be pursued. Lastly, leaders must keep the middle class interested in politics. The issue of Islamic radicalism, which is seen by some as part of the government’s ploy to restrict political space, must be seriously dealt with as this has repercussions on Indonesia’s identity.