Democracy in Indonesia 25 years after the fall of Suharto

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
Democracy in Indonesia 25 years after the fall of Suharto A demonstrator hands flowers to an Indonesian riot police officer in Jakarta during a protest calling for former President Suharto to be brought to trial on charges of human rights abuses and corruption, Nov. 26, 1998.

On May 12, 1998, Indonesian security forces gunned down four students at Jakarta’s Trisakti University who were protesting the corruption and nepotism of the government of Suharto, who had ruled since seizing power in a coup in 1965.

The incident unleashed a chain of events that saw the dictator of 32 years forced to resign and an organic democracy take root in the world’s fourth-largest country.

Indonesian citizens had much to protest about as Suharto’s rule had become increasingly capricious and despotic.

Civil society was repressed, the media shackled and politics stilted in a rigid corporatist system that coopted an enfeebled opposition. The military governed down to the village level in a system known as dwifungsi (dual function). 

Crony capitalists who plundered the country’s natural resources dominated the economy and concentrated wealth in Jakarta. The Asian economic crisis led to the collapse of currency and a 13% contraction of the economy in 1998. 

It was lost on no one that the U.S. $36 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund was nearly the amount Suharto’s family allegedly amassed during the dictator’s time in office. 

The May 1998 riots in Jakarta’s Chinatown were clearly the work of some military units who were looking for a justification to make a direct intervention in politics. Fortunately, the military chief at the time, Wiranto, resisted and deferred to the civilian leadership.

Suharto handed over power to then-Vice President B.J. Habibie on May 21, 1998. Habibie was unable to halt the economic slide and did not even contest the first election held in 1999.

Consolidating Democracy

The transition to democracy was not easy – between May 1998 and October 2004, Indonesia had five presidents. Frustration was high, especially as the country was the slowest to emerge from the Asian economic crisis.

Even though the first five years were chaotic, several cornerstones to the nation’s democratic foundations were laid.

Indonesian President Suharto (left) announces his resignation as Vice President B.J. Habibie looks on at the presidential palace in Jakarta, May 21, 1998. [Agus Lolong/AFP]

First, the military returned to the barracks. The dwifungsi policy was abolished and officers who were civil administrators were given the choice of resigning their commissions or giving up administrative powers to civilians.

Following East Timor’s independence in 1999 and the 2005 peace accord with the Acehnese rebels, there have been fewer internal security justifications for the military to be acutely involved in internal security.

The armed forces became more focused on professionalizing and modernizing. In 1999, the police, which until then had been an arm of the military, became independent and under civilian control. 

Second, Indonesia had always been an overly centralized state, politically, economically and culturally. But since there had been long-running separatist rebellions in East Timor, Aceh, Papua and elsewhere, there always was a fear that decentralization would quickly morph to secessionism.

So when the parliament authorized the “big bang” decentralization, it bypassed provinces and gave considerable powers to smaller regencies to enact public policy.

Third, presidential, legislative and local elections over the sprawling 17,000-island archipelago began to be held effectively and routinely. Despite fears of political violence, elections have been surprisingly peaceful.

There have been five largely free and fair elections since 1999 that have shown no systematic disenfranchisement. Voter participation has been high, averaging 80% since 1999.

There are dozens of political parties, but many remain vanity vehicles for individuals. Election laws have been adjusted to ensure that small and fringe parties that do not meet requirements are ineligible even as there are no prohibitive barriers to entry for candidates and new parties.

Early elections were overly complex under a hybrid political system until 2004, when the president was elected through a parliamentary vote. Since then, the president has been directly elected.

Most importantly, elections have seen the regular and peaceful turnover of presidential power.

Fourth, parliament passed a new media law in 1999 that ended censorship. Today, Indonesia has a robust media, though arguably overly controlled by a handful of conglomerates. Social media usage is high and Indonesia has one of the least restricted internet networks in Southeast Asia.

Democracy has been good for the economy. When Suharto fell, Indonesia’s GDP was $95.45 billion. That rose to $1.32 trillion in 2022.

While the economy is still overly dependent on the extraction of natural resources, there has been growth in the manufacturing and service sectors. Oil rents as a portion of GDP fell to 0.8% in 2021, from 9.9% in 1998. Oil rents are the difference between the value of crude oil production at regional prices and total costs of production, according to the World Bank.

No country has democratized as quickly as Indonesia, but that doesn’t mean the reforms are not fragile and irreversible.

Five issues of concern

First, since 2014, the military has been trying to claw back some of the civilian authority it relinquished in 1999. In what became known as Bela Negara, in 2014, the TNI identified separatism, narcotics, communism and LGBTQ rights as the greatest threats to the country. The 2018 Counterterrorism Law enshrined an internal security role for the military. 

Second, there has been legislation undermining free speech, freedom of association, religion and identity. Every major piece of public policy since 1999 has had a sharia component. A few laws have threatened Pancasila (“unity in diversity”), a core principle of the founding ideology of the state.

The mother of a student shot during riots that led up to the resignation of President Suharto takes part in a protest in Jakarta 10 years later, urging the government to probe human rights violations during that time, May 12, 2008. [Bay Ismoyo/AFP]

The blasphemy law, for example, has criminalized “deviant sects,” including Shia and Ahmadi. And the government has been all too quick to turn a blind eye to religious vigilante groups who target these minorities.

For instance, the Blasphemy Law and ensuing street protests took down Jakarta’s democratically elected Chinese-Christian governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, in 2017.

The new Criminal Code penalizes premarital sex and cohabitation outside of marriage, and also undermines free speech by criminalizing criticism of the president and Pancasila.

Third, the “big bang” decentralization impacted the secular nature of the state by devolving public policy authority to local governments. Today, there are 389 sharia codes and bylaws across the country that have had a disproportionate impact on women and religious minorities.

Fourth, while insurgencies were resolved in East Timor and Aceh, the war in the resource-rich province of Papua continues. The government has periodically shut down the internet, banned foreign media and criminalized peaceful protest and support for secessionism. Security forces continue to commit human rights abuses and credible reports have emerged that the civilian intelligence service has violated the law and is waging a dirty war.

Finally, despite the recent high profile arrest of a cabinet minister, Johnny G. Plate, corruption in Indonesia is endemic and undermines already weak political institutions. In addition, Indonesia’s economy continues to be dominated by state-owned enterprises.

In 2002, the government established an independent Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) with full investigative authority, modeled on Italy’s anti-mafia courts. It was extremely successful and quickly became the most trusted political institution in the country.  

But since 2014, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has caved in to political pressure and stripped the KPK of some autonomy and powers. In 2019, parliament passed a law stripping it of some investigative powers, prompting mass protests. 

Indonesia’s ranking in the annual Transparency International corruption perception index remains poor, and has been declining since 2019, leading to a negative impact on economic growth and political institutions.

Thousands pray during a rally against then-Jakarta City Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, Dec. 2, 2016. [Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata/BenarNews]

Indonesia will hold its first round of voting in the next presidential election in February 2024. People will be able to exercise their right to vote, parties will campaign, articulate platforms and policies – and the media will cover it all. But behind the performative aspects of democracy, there has been substantial backsliding.

Democracy has come so far, but it is not irreversible.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.


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