July 2009


Democracy in Indonesia

By Greg Barton
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In April Indonesia held its third legislative election since the fall of the Suharto regime, eleven years ago. The first, in 1999, was the first free and fair election in Indonesia since 1955, and was a festive occasion charged with anticipation, anxiety, exhilaration and finally relief, as Indonesia became the world’s third-largest democracy. Things were a little more subdued in 2004, when the parliamentary elections were followed by the first-ever direct election of a president. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono soundly trounced Megawati Sukarnoputri 61% to 39% in the second round of voting. This month, presidential elections will take place again, with a second round of voting in September if required.

This year’s parliamentary election was a rather boring affair. Australian journalists and academics found little to get excited about, but this was a good thing: no news really was good news. In Australia we fall, perhaps too readily, into the cynical habit of seeing politics in Asia as mired in stasis. While there is plenty of supporting evidence for this dour realism in Indonesia and elsewhere, it obscures the real story of post-Suharto Indonesia.

For the better part of a decade, following the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and 1998, Indonesia saw itself as a beleaguered nation facing a multi-dimensional crisis. The transition to democracy was altogether more peaceful and successful than anyone could reasonably have expected. Nevertheless, the financial crisis, fears of ‘Balkanisation’ (reinforced by large-scale communal violence in eastern Indonesia), and then the October 2002 bombings in Bali and the unexpected emergence of jihadi terrorism, confirmed a sense that the nation faced a relentless barrage of threats.

The five years since the election of Yudhoyono, or SBY as he is popularly known, have seen this mood of crisis subside and one of normality emerge. This success has gone largely unnoticed in Australia. As The Lowy Institute Poll 2006 revealed, most Australians continue to see Indonesia through the old narrative of crisis and danger. As a result, Australia’s giant neighbour remains, in the eyes of most, a mysterious, threatening presence.

Despite this perceptual lag, the reality is that Australia has never enjoyed better relations with Indonesia than it is experiencing now. This was the unambiguous consensus of participants in the Australia–Indonesia conference, organised by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australia–Indonesia Institute and held in Sydney in February. This conference was remarkable for the scale of elite participation and the absence of serious disagreement. The sole point of dispute was DFAT’s decision to maintain a level-four travel warning for Indonesia. And even on this point the vast majority of participants, Australians and Indonesians alike, were in agreement that Indonesia’s remarkably successful response to Jemaah Islamiyah rendered this threat level unjustified.

In itself, the Sydney conference achieved little that was new. But it did serve as an important historical marker of an incrementally transformed relationship and of a quietly reinvented nation. Not that many years ago, conversations about Indonesia’s future and her relationship with Australia were marked by anxiety and uncertainty. It seemed unlikely that the generals would retreat from power, the economy looked as if it might never return to the levels of growth that had been lifting the burgeoning population out of poverty, and Indonesia’s modest middle class and limited civil society meant that there was little chance of achieving a full transition to liberal democracy. Only a decade ago, the Indonesia of today would have represented a best-case scenario that few dared to believe possible. Certainly, no one could have predicted that in 2009 Southeast Asia would have one successful democratic nation marked by political openness, social stability and steady economic growth – and that that nation would be Indonesia.

Where does Indonesia’s president, the avuncular but cautious SBY, fit into all of this? There was no disguising the delight with which Yudhoyono’s election was received in Washington and Canberra in 2004. The replacement of Megawati by Yudhoyono was seen as a just-in-time return to competent and predictable leadership. Indonesia, it was feared, was on course to follow the Philippines into economic stagnation, social decay and the politics of delusion. With SBY came the hope that disaster might be averted and a slow and steady progress begun. Which is, pretty much, what has happened over the past five years. Economic growth has consistently been above 6%, only dropping slightly below that even in the midst of the global financial crisis, enabling substantial budget increases for education and health.

Exactly how much of the credit for this is due to the president and his administration, and how much to the common sense and hard work of ordinary Indonesians, is impossible to say. But in a nation long accustomed to strong presidential leadership it should not have come as too much of a surprise that Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party (PD) tripled its share of the parliamentary vote from 7.5% in 2004, when the party was newly formed, to 20.9% in 2009. The 2004 presidential election had given Yudhoyono a strong mandate, but poor support in the legislature had undermined his executive power. This year’s legislative election results have seen a dramatic shift in the balance of power.

Many of the more than 170 million Indonesians who were eligible to vote in this year’s elections were voting for the first time and have no clear memory of the Suharto era. It is little wonder then that the old parties have steadily lost ground. Megawati’s Indonesian Democracy Party of the Struggle (PDI-P), which inherited the mantle of the Suharto-era party PDI, roared into the 1999 legislative election to capture a third of the popular vote. PDI-P’s success was built on the image of Megawati as daughter of Indonesia’s popular left-leaning first president, Sukarno, and the leader of the ‘Reformasi’ movement against Suharto. Megawati served as vice-president until 2001, when she replaced the controversial but boldly reformist Abdurrahman Wahid as president mid-term. But in 2004, disappointment with Megawati’s lacklustre performance saw support for PDI-P drop to 18.5%. This year PDI-P’s vote declined to 14%.

In 1999 many were surprised when Golkar, Suharto’s old party, managed to secure almost a quarter of the popular vote. Golkar’s unrivalled grassroots network and experienced leadership meant that the party was able to continue as a credible political force. Indeed, in the 1999 legislative elections, it was second only to PDI-P. And in 2004, when it secured a respectable 21.6% of the vote, it emerged ahead of PDI-P as Indonesia’s largest political party. All this changed in April, however, when Golkar dropped back to 14.5%. Many within Golkar blame this poor performance on the party chairman, Jusuf Kalla, who had served for five years as Indonesia’s vice-president. Kalla’s supporters argue that he was left to play bad cop to Yudhoyono’s good cop. His detractors, of whom there are many, contend that the ‘bad cop’ routine was no act. Kalla, they argue, is an old-school politician who is just as undemocratic and self-serving as he appears to be.

In this context, Yudhoyono’s choice of running mate for the July 2009 presidential elections was a matter of no small consequence. With his own party, PD, now the largest party in parliament, having attracted almost half as many votes again as either PDI-P or Golkar, Yudhoyono was in no mood for compromise. With a host of willing coalition partners to choose from in the parliament, Yudhoyono was free to nominate a non-party-political vice-presidential candidate. His choice of the central-bank governor, Dr Boediono, caught observers by surprise but was praised by almost all who were not themselves in the contest for the vice-presidency. For Australia, Boediono’s nomination was very welcome. He is seen to be incorruptible and is widely experienced, having served as planning minister under the interim president Habibie, finance minister under Megawati and co-ordinating minister for the economy under Yudhoyono. He is also an old friend of Australia. Boediono earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Western Australia and a master of economics at Monash University. Even his doctoral dissertation for the University of Pennsylvania was largely written while he was resident at the Australian National University, where he worked for several years.

The party most upset by Yudhoyono’s choice is the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), regarded by many as the weakest element of his first administration. PKS is a radical Islamist party modelled on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Although in recent years it has tried to present itself as softer and more inclusive, its support last year for the banning of the Ahmadiyah, an innocuous but doctrinally controversial Islamic sect, was seen as proof of its intolerance. This was further reinforced when, disappointed at being passed over for the vice-presidential candidacy, it criticised the religiously observant Boediono for not being “sufficiently Islamic”.

PKS achieved a very credible 7.3% of the legislative vote in 2004 and in 2009 set itself the goal of securing 20% of the popular vote. In the end, despite well-organised campus-based campaigns and an impressive support base, it was barely able to extend its share of the vote, securing just 7.9%.

PKS was not the only populist party that threatened an illiberal turn in the legislature. The 2009 campaign saw two new, incredibly slick and well-funded parties led by controversial Suharto-era generals storm into the spotlight. Hanura, led by Wiranto (who was sacked by Wahid because of the violence that occurred around the East Timor referendum during his leadership of the military) and Gerindra, led by Suharto’s son-in-law Prabowo who is widely believed to have orchestrated the anti-Chinese violence of May 1998, appeared to be rising forces. In the end, however, for all of their multi-million-dollar rallies and television campaigns, they respectively secured only 3.8% and 4.4% of the vote. Ordinary Indonesian voters, though poor and not well educated, are clearly not so easily won over as the elite likes to imagine. The 11 years since the collapse of the Suharto regime have witnessed three cycles of successful national elections, and numerous local elections, popularly supported and almost entirely free of violence and unrest. Leaders are being held to account for their performances, economic and social development are being steadily consolidated and threats to social stability overcome. Indonesia struggles still with poverty, corruption and poor governance, but it is moving steadily forward. Imperfect though it is, democracy really does seem to be working in Indonesia. For Australia that is very good news.

Greg Barton
Greg Barton is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Monash University.

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