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INDONESIA: The fledgling democracy

Paper no. 1056                  13. 07. 2004

by C.S Kuppuswamy

“Democracy, however imperfect, is on a roll in Indonesia”

- W. Scott Thompson

 Indonesia and Recent Elections:

With the recent elections in April 2004 for the legislature and the first direct presidential election in July 2004, the progress being made in the transition from the authoritarian rule to democracy in Indonesia, has come into focus.  The fact that both these elections have gone off peacefully is itself being hailed as a major step in the democratization process.  As soon as Suharto stepped down in May 1998, after an autocratic rule for over three decades,  the expectations were that Indonesia will soon be a full fledged democracy.  This has not happened despite two general elections and a drastic reduction in the role of the armed forces in running the country.  However it is not appropriate to compare Indonesia with the so called successful democracies of the west and the absolute standards for judging a democracy.  The hurdles in the democratization process of Indonesia have been too many and the major ones are analysed in this paper.

Political Parties and Leadership   

The leaders and the political parties have so far not exhibited their vision or efforts to really stand up for society and the people.  They sustain themselves purely on individual and group interests.  The civilian leadership has been ineffective in the last six years which has perhaps caused the resurgence of the military figures in the political arena.  This sentiment has been aptly reflected in the statement “The resurgence of military figures on the Indonesian stage is not the result of a military effort.  It is the result of a civilian failure” (Jeffrey Winters – Newsweek 3 May 2004).

  In six years, since the downfall of Suharto, three presidents have come and gone and the fourth one will be in office by this October.  The transitions have been smooth except in the case of Megawati taking over from Abdurrahman  Wahid.  Though the democratic principles have survived, the civilian legitimacy has been threatened because of corruption, abuse of power and a tolerance of mediocrity.  The anti-incumbency factor in the last elections also indicate the poor performance of  the president and her men.  The fact that a candidate from a minor party is a front  runner in the presidential elections in July 2004 as against the representatives of the older parties such as Golkar and  the Indonesian Party for Struggle (PDI-P)  indicates that the people are disillusioned  with these parties  and their veteran leaders and they want  a strong man at the top  who can ensure stability and work for the basic needs of the common man  and the economic well being of the country.

 Religious Influence 

 In Indonesia the two Muslim social organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama(NU) and the Muhammadiyah have played a major part in influencing the polity of the country despite their claims of being apolitical.  To satisfy the political ambitions of some leaders of these organizations, a few Muslim-oriented parties have come up such as the United Development Party (PPP) and the National Awakening Party (PKB).  The fact that some of the presidential candidates chose leaders of these organizations as their running mates prove the point that the support of these organizations is crucial to win the elections.

 Democracy has suffered at the hands of Islam in certain cases.  In the current presidential elections some leaders of NU issued a fatwa (religious edict) banning women becoming president.  This came at a time when the country was seriously considering to enhance the role of women in political life.  There was also a disinformation campaign that the wife of Susilo Bambang (a presidential candidate) is a Christian and that he is supporting many non-Muslims in his party.  Though he had clarified that she is a devout Muslim and the allegations of his favouring non-Muslims in his party are unfounded, he is believed to have lost significant Muslim support on this count.

However former US President Jimmy Carter, who was an observer for the presidential elections held on July 5, 2004, has said that the presidential election in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, was a successful endeavor that proves Islam and democracy are compatible and that “this is a vivid demonstration that it is not a citizen’s religious faith that decides whether they prefer democracy”.

For more on this Paper No. 1021 dated 09 June 2004 titled “INDONESIA :  Elections  and  Islam” may be referred to.

KKN (Indonesian initials for corruption, cronyism and nepotism).  

This was more of a war cry and was the main plank on which the Suharto regime was brought down.  Even after six years, these three ailments continue to plague the democratic process in this country.  One of the reasons for Megawati’s party’s mediocre performance in the legislature elections in April 2004 was her tolerance and even contribution to KKN related activities.

Indonesia has been declared as the world’s most corrupt nation in Asia for the third year running by a survey carried out by the Hong Kong based Political & economic Risk Consultancy  Limited.

The real problem for the Indonesian economy is rampant corruption at all levels.  Though institutions such as the Corruption Eradication Commission and the Transparency International have come up, the problem has not been addressed at the political leadership or at the political system level.  A former president (Abdurrahman Wahid) was removed for alleged corruption and incompetence and the parliament speaker and chairman of a leading party (Akbar Tanjung) was sentenced to three years jail on charges of corruption but later acquitted by the supreme court (allegedly under political pressure).

 Of the five presidents the country had so far, only Habibie is a non-Javanese.  It has been an unwritten convention to elect a Muslim from Java as the president. Patronage culture has also stifled the growth of democracy in this country.

The role of the Armed Forces

As early as in May 2001 Yenni Kwok (a CNN commentator) wrote “The military in Indonesia, as in many countries often plays an important part in the rise and fall of key politicians.  The leaders themselves emerge from its ranks”.  These words may again prove true if Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (a former general and chief security minister), the front runner in the presidential elections in  July 2004, makes it to the presidency in the run-off between the two leading candidates in September this year.

Suharto (himself a general), who came to power after the so called coup in 1965, retained power for over three decades only because of the excessive influence the armed forces  were allowed to hold over the country’s affairs.

Even after the fall of Suharto in 1998, the armed forces continue to play an important part though its political influence or participation has been steadily curtailed through constitutional reforms.

The military was under international pressure because of its human rights abuses in East Timor and in dealing with separatist and freedom movements (as in Aceh).  However the pressure has eased after the Bali bombings in October 2002 and the introduction of martial law in Aceh (May 2003).

The military has started to reassert itself especially with benign support of President Megawati.  A controversial legislation  by which the armed forces can deploy troops in an emergency and has to only inform the president within 24 hours of the deployment, is under consideration.  The bill if passed will undermine the civilian supremacy.

The predominance of the armed forces called the TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia-Indonesian National Soldiers) in Indonesian politics has been mainly due to the inadequacy in the political leadership and their dependence on the TNI  for their sustenance in power.  Juwono Sudarsono, a former minister for defense, has analysed and given out three main reasons for this predominance.  They are:

·      Organised civil politics at governmental, legislative and grass roots levels is still largely disjointed, disorganized and often in disarray.  Having been instilled with a strong dose of doctrine of military supremacy over the civilians, the TNI officer corps  remain reluctant to respect and adhere to civilian control.

·      The past presidents had maintained the presence of the Commander of the TNI and Chief of the National Police in cabinet sessions, acknowledging them on a parallel rather than answerable to the defense or interior minister.  The all important post of Interior Minister has to date always  been held by a retired general. 

·      TNI retains a powerful independent financial base partly funded through the government budget but independently supplemented by a myriad of foundations, cooperatives and enterprises. 

Though constitutionally, the TNI has lost its power and participation in the legislature, it will continue to influence the politics of the nation until democracy is firmly established and the internal security situation improves.

Terrorism, Insurgency and the Freedom Movements

The freedom movements and the insurgencies have been there for a long time in Indonesia destabilizing and retarding the progress of democratization.  There is (or has been) trouble in Aceh, West Papua, Malukas(Ambon), Central Sulawesi and Kalimantan.  However during the tenure of B.J.Habibie, when East Timor broke away from Indonesia in 1999, the other freedom movements especially the Freedom Movement in Aceh (GAM) got emboldened.  Aceh was brought under martial law in May 2003 and has since been brought under a semblance of civilian government.  The employment of the armed forces in controlling or suppressing these insurgencies have increased the dependency of the political leadership on the armed forces.

Jemaah Islamiyah,  the South East Asian terrorist network with links to Al Qaeda has become a big problem in maintaining law and order. The Bali bombing of 2002 is a big blemish on this country.  The western nations, particularly the U.S, has expressed that Indonesia had done very little to curb the terrorist activities in the country.  The arrest of Hambali in Thailand and his deportation to U.S and the re- arrest of Abu Bakar Bashir, the alleged leader of Jemaah Islamiyah has given further impetus to the terrorist activities

The United States Policy

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright had named Indonesia along with Columbia, Ukraine and Nigeria as one of four democracies to be assisted.  Indonesia because of its geo political importance is of more strategic value to America than any other country in South East Asia.   Consequent to the atrocities in East Timor the Clinton administration had cut off aid and suspended ties with the Indonesian military.  With the recent concerns on security of the Malacca Straits expressed by Admiral Fargo, Commander-in-Chief  of the U.S Pacific Command,   it is all the more important for U.S to assist Indonesia in becoming a stable democracy

The American shift – from a war for democracy to a war on terrorism – had put Indonesia in bad light.  Indonesia instead of being seen as a weak democracy that needs support gets looked upon as a weak country that has done little to curb terrorism   It is in America’s interest to show the Arab Muslim nations that it is possible to develop a successful Muslim democracy, with a modern economy and a moderate religious outlook.

Paul Wolfowitz, former Deputy to the Secretary of Defense and former ambassador to Indonesia had also pointed out that United States must be serious about helping Indonesia in its quest for democracy and a stable economy.

In view of the aforesaid and Jimmy Carter’s observations on the Indonesian presidential elections that Islam and democracy are compatible, the U.S should review its policy towards this nation if it does not want the armed forces to regain its hold on the politics of the country.


Indonesia is changing and changing for the better.  The elections in April for the legislature and in July for the president have proved that the Indonesian voter cannot be taken for granted as in the past.  He is no longer swayed by religious or political affiliations.  For this purpose the electronic media has been a great help at least to the urban voter.

These elections have also proved that the general public is disillusioned with the established political parties (Golkar and PDI-P) and that they are looking at the personality who is going to deliver and not at the party.

Democracy will have no meaning if a parallel social and economic progress are not achieved.  For this purpose unemployment, corruption, the neutralization of separatist movements and curbing of the terrorist activities have to be taken up on priority by the leader.  For strengthening this democracy, religious, racial and gender issues as well as patronage culture have to be resolved.

To quote Jusuf Wanadi “a mature democracy not only depends on the elections, the DPR (House of Representatives) or the political parties.  A strong and healthy civil society, a free press and an active student body are important prerequisites for a mature democracy in Indonesia”.

National security is as important as democracy and a balance between the two has to be maintained.  Susilo Bambang, the presidential aspirant,  in an interview to Newsweek said “If we practice only the democratic side – improving freedoms, empowering civil society, respecting human rights  - and we neglect to maintain our stability and public security then we encounter what we had in the past, an unstable situation”.

Despite the constitutional reforms on reduction of the role and participation of the armed forces in the politics of the country, the armed forces are still wielding  much influence on the political happenings.  Hence it is up to the civil authorities to achieve effective supremacy over the military and make them answerable to the political leadership

Prof. Galbraith had remarked that there is anarchy in India but he added that it is a functional anarchy.  In the same way the democracy in Indonesia may be flawed or skewed but it could have a functional democracy.