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Indonesia - Politics Background

Trying to account for the enormous political and other accomplishments of recent years has for some time occupied Indonesia watchers ranging from serious, academic specialists to commentators with varied and comparatively casual interests in the country and its people, to say nothing of Indonesians themselves. One result has been a wave of academic and journalistic writing, much of it sharply divided ideologically and theoretically. Indonesians from the political elite to ordinary citizens have also plunged into a period of unprecedented—and unprecedentedly open— introspection, raising a vibrant public discourse. There is no broad consensus, but the principal analyses tend to fall into five main types.

The first takes a long-term view. According to this explanation, Indonesia’s dramatic shift to a successful democratic political process confirms what some had argued all along: democracy began to take root in the years immediately following the National Revolution (1945–49), but this natural, often disorderly development was nipped in the bud by the imposition of Sukarno’s Guided Democracy (1957–65) and further suppressed by Suharto’s military-backed New Order (1966–98). Proponents of this view dismiss arguments that newly independent Indonesians in the early 1950s were not “ready” for representative democracy, or that democracy along Western lines (what Sukarno called “free-fight liberalism” and “50 percent + 1 democracy”) is somehow antithetical to both Indonesia’s needs and its traditions.

They also suggest that previous governments’ attempts to deal with the specter of ethnic and religious conflict by smothering the expression and discussion of differences rather than channeling and protecting them only made matters worse. The fall of the New Order, and with it the fall from favor of the old political elite and the military, made possible what was in fact a kind of “back-to-thefuture” movement: returning to what began so promisingly nearly two generations earlier, and this time doing it right. Indonesia’s achievement since 1998, then, was as possible 40 years ago as it has now proven to be.

A second explanation looks at matters from a mid-range perspective, focusing on the previous 20 years or so. The success of Indonesia’s transformation thus appears due largely to the influence of internal dissidents and progressives—particularly educated young people—during the last half of the New Order and the subsequent period of reformasi (reform—see Glossary), coupled with pressure from both a general globalization and specific outside sources. Advocates credit this combination of forces not only with weakening and eventually bringing an end to Suharto’s rule, but also, even more important, with persisting during the subsequent period of upheaval in championing and providing the ideas and manpower necessary for genuinely democratic reforms. Seen in this way, Indonesia’s post–New Order achievement is to a very large degree a generational one, which, as many reformers are quick to point out, is very much in the tradition of Indonesia’s original struggle for independence.

A still shorter field of vision defines a third perspective, which focuses for the most part on the past decade. This view emphasizes the importance of the political and military leadership after the resignation of Suharto in May 1998, arguing that without it Indonesia might easily have continued as previously, under the sway of an authoritarian figure. Instead, as it happened, the individuals who followed the New Order president had neither the inclination nor the opportunity to attempt to reassemble the strongman pattern. Military leaders made conscious decisions to forego any thoughts of reinstating—by force or other means—the armed forces’ self-declared dual responsibilities as both governors and enforcers. However great a role the architects of reform may have played, according to this argument, their efforts could have been derailed by powerful civilians and soldiers if they had been so inclined. But they were not derailed, and it is therefore to current military and political leaders, with all their strengths and weaknesses, that the success of the past decade must ultimately be attributed.

A final theory suggests that the great transformation at issue has not (or at least not yet) taken place, and that the changes that have occurred are in many respects superficial. For example, a prominent analyst of Indonesian affairs examined the three pairs of candidates in the 2009 presidential election and found they were all “creatures of Indonesia’s past.” Yusuf Kalla, a “classic Suharto-esque businessman” and conservative political supporter, was allied with Wiranto, a retired general who was Suharto’s former adjutant and was indicted by the United Nations for crimes against humanity in East Timor. Megawati, a “woman longing for a return to the glory days of her father,” had as a running mate Prabowo Subianto, another general (and former son-in-law of Suharto), who was dismissed by the military for brutal treatment of political activists. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, yet another former general, although one with a reputation for liberal tendencies and indecisiveness, chose as his vice presidential candidate a career government economist—Budiono—who had most recently headed Bank Indonesia. All of this suggests that at best modest and largely cosmetic change has taken place since 1998, and that, furthermore, the prospects for deep, meaningful reforms in the immediate future are perhaps considerably dimmer than most enthusiasts are willing to admit.

Each of these explanations has strengths as well as obvious weak points, and none can stand entirely on its own. Beyond the op-ed pieces and academic studies, in their everyday thinking most Indonesians probably borrow from all of them in assembling their own conclusions. Even taken together, however, it is startling that in their combined field of vision, the 32 years of New Order governance scarcely figure except as a source of obstacles to political modernization, a decidedly negative force in any effort to explain the advances of the past decade. Recently, however, a handful of commentators have quietly begun to raise the possibility that a powerful explanation of the undeniably rapid, and apparently successful, transformation since 1998 may lie precisely where least suspected: in the policies and realities of the New Order itself.

A full consideration of this fifth theory would require a thorough reexamination of Indonesia’s history in the last half of the twentieth century, which has yet to be undertaken. For the present, however, some principal points of the argument seem clear enough. The basic notion is that the “amazing” transformation after 1998 is not quite as amazing as has generally been suggested because the New Order regime was never as powerful and monolithic, in some views even totalitarian, as many believed, and that its ability to control the way people thought and behaved was overestimated. (In the same vein, the military was never as unified or free to assert its will as most assumed.)

From this perspective, for example, the New Order censorship about which critics constantly complained was on the whole much milder than portrayed, and at best erratic and incomplete; it certainly did not entirely smother public debate or expressions of discontent. Similarly, the regime’s signature efforts to inculcate the ideology of Pancasila (see Glossary), which critics decried as so much self-interested, statist propagandizing, were surprisingly ineffective, producing more cynicism and questioning than acquiescence, and certainly not blind adherence. Individuals’ ability to think or act independently in political matters, although indeed limited under the New Order regime, was far less severely damaged than imagined, and did not require a miracle to revive.

This explanation also suggests that the New Order may have contributed to the post-1998 transformation in a more positive manner. It is not, for example, quite so astonishing that Indonesia was able to hold complex and reasonably peaceful elections in 1999, 2004, and 2009 if we recall that, in fact, the nation had practice doing so for a quarter of a century under New Order auspices in 1971, 1977, 1982, 1987, 1992, and 1997. This notion may be repellent to critics who spent years pointing out how the New Order political process was anything but free, manipulated as it was by numerous means, including dishonest management of elections, curtailment of party independence, manipulation of parliament through large appointed memberships, and the like.

Nevertheless, elections were routinely held and order maintained until the process became familiar, even taken for granted; it was by no means new in 1999, even though the all-important political context had changed. Furthermore, it seems likely that the millions of Indonesians who participated in those New Order elections came to understand that process’s shortcomings and to develop ideas about how it could be improved. There was no dearth of ideas when the time came to make changes, and the journey to democracy required modest hops rather than great leaps.

The larger implication of this fifth sort of explanation is that what took place between roughly 1998 and 2004 in Indonesia was on the one hand not the revolution or near-revolution some saw or wished for, and on the other hand not the ephemeral, surface phenomenon others feared. There was neither miracle nor mirage but rather a complex transition in which continuity figured as importantly as change, and the two were often very closely intertwined.




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