Governance and Domestic Politics in Indonesia: Contemporary Challenges & Achievements
   ·   01 Jun, 2013   ·   225    ·    Issue Brief

Indonesia  until recently, was  the product  of two  dictatorships, the first being  Soekarno’s Guided Democracy, which officially began  in 1959 after her first and only elected Parliament (until then) was suspended. This was followed by a  second dictatorship  under  Soeharto’s  New Order, which lasted  thirty two years  until it was brought down in 1998.

Under both dictatorships, governance was strongly centralized (of course), but there were differences too, notably in the role of the military: under Guided Democracy military power was  kept in check by the  Communist Party acting as a  counter weight to it (with Soekarno as the  balancer between them), whereas under Soeharto’s   New Order, the  military became more  obtrusive and acquired an officially sanctioned  socio-political role (known as dui fungsi).  Both dictatorships kept Islamic forces in check (except in the transition years between 1966-67 when it suited Soeharto to unleash the Nahadlatul Ulama  against the “communists” and  ,hand in glove with the military, to destroy 500,000 mostly  innocent people).

This extended dose of dictatorship in Indonesia  has lead to  a failure of institutional growth. Apart from the  executive and such Institutions as were necessary to support  economic growth such as a Central Bank, a Stock Exchange or an Investment Promotion Board,  “normal” organs of State such as  an independent  Legislature,  a Judiciary, and a free press failed to develop, while the question of more elaborate institutions such as an Election Commission,  Human Rights Commission,  Anti –Corruption Commission, Constitutional Court etc. simply did not arise!   


Contemporary Indonesia

Today, only fifteen years after Soeharto’s departure, Indonesia already has a very robust Presidential Democracy with a popular twice elected President ,  an incredibly dispersed system of  devolution of powers from the Center to more than 440 Regencies, an  elected Central Legislature  (DPR), a second  Legislative Body for   lower Administrative Units(DPRD), a 128 member Regional Representative Council (DPD) or Upper House,  a Judiciary, a strong Anti Corruption Agency, several  Independent Watchdog  Agencies and the freest Press in Asia! 

How did Indonesia achieve all this and so quickly?

The answers to this intriguing question are many, but one answer at least lies in the  strong sense of nationalism which  Indonesia’s  intelligent leaders began to forge from as early as 1927.  They invented  a common  national language (Bahasa Indonesian) to replace the hundreds of languages and dialects which were then in use and  within a few years of Independence, ensured that every Indonesian man and woman became  literate in  it!

Other contributing factors were Indonesia’s traditionally egalitarian culture of Gotong Royong (which  roughly translates into Heave ho and pull together!); the  innate resilience of an agricultural people  which has seen them cheerfully pull through the most horrendous crises both natural and manmade; an eclectic brand of Islam, the product of Hindu, Buddhist and animist sources which remains moderate today (despite the filtering away of its unique  cultural characteristics) and  the major contribution of its civil society institutions.

Two of the above in particular stand out:  the Mohammediah and Nahadlatul Ulama, which together enjoy  a membership of over 70 million, have been providing extensive support  services through free  education, health care, relief and rehabilitation etc through thousands of boarding schools, colleges, hospitals and  maternity homes across  Java and Sumatra.

Indonesia’s healthy gender relations have also contributed much to the people’s poise and absorptive capacity. In urban areas, in large manufacturing establishments and others, women constitute the  work force almost equally as men and enjoy  much more control over their lives and livelihood than do women in South Asia generally, or India in particular. 

Although Soeharto kept levels of education deliberately low for people not  to pose a challenge to his dictatorship, by universalizing primary and secondary education, he  did ensure that education was  widely spread. This  helped to foster among Indonesians a remarkable degree of fraternity which we often miss in India. Over the dictatorship years, therefore and under its seeming stagnancy, the Indonesian people were gradually moving  away from rural ignorance and superstition (and a strong tradition of blind hero worship) towards becoming more law abiding citizens as befits a modern and rapidly urbanizing country.

When the opportunity came to overthrow Soeharto  and re establish  democracy in 1998, Indonesians (unlike the Arabs  who seem to be failing to meet the expectations of their Spring of  two years ago) were  equal to the challenge!


Challenges & Problems in Contemporary Indonesia

Of course, there are many problems still, some a hangover from the past, others a product of  democracy itself. The most serious problem, is the lack of a federal tradition. Strong centralization of not only of financial power but also  of cultural rights to self expression  (of the kind India was able to foresee and equip herself for through devolution of powers to linguistically based States) has resulted in   a somewhat  underdeveloped sense of identity at the grassroots. 

Leaders like Hatta  and Syahrir,   knowing well that  a country of  Indonesia’s  size and diversity required  a system which would allow the exploration of  differences (instead of one which imposed a uniform homogeneity) had desired  a federal structure for Indonesia but, suspecting the  Dutch Settlement of Independence of 1949 as being  a ploy to give the departing colonizer a handle to continue to meddle in Indonesia’s internal affairs, they delayed its implementation.  They had hoped to revert to a Federal system a few years later after consolidating their grip  on the country, but  unfortunately this did not happen. 

Soekarno was not instinctively democratic and, when he overthrew Indonesia’s elected Parliament to announce his Guided Democracy, he also dissolved the Constituent Assembly which was expected  to  institutionalize a federal structure for Indonesia (and rule out Shariah as well ). Soeharto, who replaced Soekarno, was even more of a dictator  for  he centralised State controls even further and  ensured that the Constitution remained unchanged during the New Era years.  

Inventing a  common language had undoubtedly been the right  strategy (and a brilliant one ) for  a geographically fractured  country of 17000 Islands, especially as  Indonesia also had to  fight a bitterly contested Revolution with the Dutch before  her  Independence was recognized.  But the absence of a truly federal polity  (by which perhaps local languages could have been retained alongside Bahasa Indonesian) resulted in  a certain amount of damage to  the Indonesian psyche. This failure, coupled with deliberate neglect of higher education by Soeharto (and the military culture he promoted), resulted in the peoples’   lack of self confidence and  inability to  articulate their own condition especially in the presence of foreigners .  But democracy and globalization require people to take  charge of their  own political future, not rely (for example) on the UNDP’s office in Indonesia’s Parliament to prepare position papers for Parliamentarians!

Fortunately  this practice has been  recently stopped and  Indonesia today spends 30 percent of her GDP on education (a high ratio as compared with most countries), which  should soon wipe out the  country’s twin deficits of higher education and  English language skills. India’s education market is a big draw for Indonesia whose Embassy in New Delhi has recently acquired  a post of Education Attache to tap into it. But the number of  Indonesian students  in India remains small (only 200 -250 out of a total of 30 000-40 000 Indonesians studying abroad). India’s Government should address this problem in a generous  spirit under the India-Indonesia New Strategic partnership of 2005 now  when Indonesians may still appreciate the help they receive from us.

Apart from emphasizing higher and better quality education, the Indonesian government has, since 2001, decentralized all functions except defense, external affairs, justice, monetary matters and religious affairs and supported them with   a commensurate budget, bureaucracy and elected representatives. Indonesia has thus changed, in the post Financial Crisis years (the Reformasi years) from being the most centralized large country in the world to the most decentralized! 

Unfortunately, due to  lingering fear of  secession which continues to haunt Indonesia, financial and administrative  power was not passed on to the 33 Special Districts and Provinces which would have been easier to manage, but to 440 individual Regencies and Municipalities! The result has been chaotic for the performance of the 440 local governments has been very uneven. Few of them,  lead by able and honest people, are doing well but in general,   dishonesty and corruption has increased. The Corruption Eradication Commission of Indonesia has charged, convicted and jailed hundreds of local government officials and elected representatives (and thus contributed to the strengthening of the rule of law in Indonesia), but the President’s task is not made easier when   he/she is  required to cajole, manipulate and mobilize 440 local Governments (no longer simply to command them which he could do as a dictator!).

President SBY is personally still loved and respected, but his inclusion of representatives from every party small of big, in his Cabinet and his tendency to consult them on every issue has given the impression of indecisiveness and almost paralyzed governance. SBY is  criticized  for  unnecessarily  following a policy of rigorous consensus building across parties, unnecessary because he had won a  clear and massive mandate  in 2009  and also because he will have   no more elections to contest after 2014!  

Another problem, which has arisen out of democracy itself, is religious intolerance*.  After Soeharto’s  removal, the  long  period of sectarian calm was shattered with 50 terrorist attacks recorded  in Aceh, East Timor, Kalimantan, Poso, Ambon  and Jakarta between 1998- 2001. Some of these (Aceh, East Timor and Papua) were insurgencies, while others were directed against Christian migrants who had been brought in as settlers under the earlier regime’s transmigration policy and hence essentially economic. But in 1999, when the Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta was bombed, followed by  the Stock Exchange in 2000 (April) and when on  Christmas eve of 2000, 38 bombs were set off against Christian targets in 11 cities, the Jemmah Islamiah, a terror organization with  pan regional ambitions was for the first time, held culpable. Islamic terror was recognized at last as having become a chilling reality in Indonesia.

After  9/11, came the  Bali bombings (and more bombings later, in Jakarta) which were seen as directed primarily against Australia for its  “betrayal” in East Timor, but  several Indonesians were killed too. An organization called Lashkar Jehad which had been sending hundreds of “holy  warriors” openly to fight Christians in Maluku, was immediately closed down. Later it was confirmed that it had been aided by Indonesia’s   military (and some prominent politician- cronies of the former President) who were unhappy with the ongoing democratic reforms! 

A new terror outfit, the  Islamic  Defenders Front (FPI), was  set up by an Indonesian of Arab descent and began organizing attacks on places of “western immorality”  such as bars, gambling dens, massage parlours,  discotheques etc.  In 2002, advocates of Islamisation were defeated in another  attempt (the fourth one since 1945), to introduce  Shariah laws into Indonesia’s Constitution. FPI then expanded its target to the Ahmediahs, a “deviant” sect with  about 200,000-500,000 followers believed to have originated in India.  Just before the 2009 elections, on the recommendation of Indonesia’s powerful Ulama Council,  the Ahmediah were banned  by  the Attorney General from spreading their message to “prevent restlessness in the Muslim community.” Simultaneously, the Government also pledged not to persecute them. When some moderates protested the ban, the Government moved to arrest the extremists who attacked them. A kind of “parity” between moderates and extremists was thus demonstrated by the Government but  the ban itself was not seriously questioned.

The logic of democracy does unfortunately create an atmosphere for atavistic behavior to thrive in and  Indonesia’s story is neither new nor possibly quite over yet. There are of course some positives: despite dire predictions, the prosecution of “Islamic” terrorists was carried out by the Indonesian police and Intelligence agencies with quiet efficiency and admirable  rigour. The world has admired the speed of conviction of several master minds of terror and the fact that the Bali bombers were hanged in an Islamic country under its own laws is no doubt commendable. Prominent Indonesians have openly called the FPI as “thugs in Arab robes” and the Mohammadiah and Nahdlatul Ulama, rivals otherwise, have joined hands to work against their tactics. As a result, the 2009 election verdict saw  a decline to 27.8 percent of the vote in support of Islamic Parties which in 2004 had been as high as 38.1% . Also,  the secular-nationalist parties  increased their vote share, thus offering a ray of hope for a secular future.

Indonesian Islam itself  however, is undergoing a deeper metamorphosis. A large number of Regencies have introduced Shariah laws . Mohammadiah  has, under present Chairman Din Shamsuddin, declared  secularism, liberalism and pluralism as un-Islamic and Muslims are forbidden from marrying non Muslims or to engage in joint prayers with them. Abdurrahman Wahid, former head of NU and a great liberal himself, used often to express unhappiness  at the extremist views being propagated in NU’s boarding schools but he has unfortunately passed away.

Indonesia’s Abangan (the follower of Java’s hybrid Islam with Hindu Buddhist Animist roots) long  under pressure to change his  religious beliefs but repelled by Islamic extremism, had become a  ready convert to   Christianity and it seems that it is to prevent  such conversions that attacks on churches have increased in Indonesia. A report of the US State Department in 2008 declared the Government’s move against Ahmediah to be a “significant exception” to the respect for religious freedom in Indonesia but India, consistent with her  policy of non interference, has not reacted to these developments. Clearly it is in her interest to do so not only because Abangan/Ahmediah  beliefs represent the composite culture which Indians profess to value, but more significantly because  India’s security will be  more immediately threatened by religious extremism in Indonesia than that of the USA!


A big success story in Indonesia has been the quiet and efficient manner of reduction of the role and importance of the military but much still remains to be done. From having a say in all Executive Departments, a guaranteed number of seats in Parliament and an expansive base which included the police forces, Indonesia’s military today no longer enjoys reserved seats in  Parliament. Its numbers have shrunk as the Police has been drawn out of it and none of the Executive Departments (except in the Ministry of Defense) has a military representative attached to it any longer. However, what remains to be dismantled is the Territorial Command Structure under which a parallel Military administration is present in the Regencies and at local levels.

Also, the military’s commercial operations including its various lucrative cooperatives continue with only some marginal reduction and 70 percent of military funding is still  “off Budget,” that is   from unofficial sources!  As the hold of the military increases with distance from the National Capital and the  country’s periphery is also where a lot of her mineral, forest and marine wealth lies (read: Aceh, Papua, Kalimantan) the resultant mix of corruption and environmental exploitation abetted by local Governments and  Military hand in glove with  Foreign companies is a major concern, especially now that with devolution of financial powers, as much as 70 percent  of locally generated wealth can be retained locally.   Dismantling the Territorial Command structure and weaning the military off its habituated “off Budget” revenues is vital for  Indonesia if it is to  have the  well equipped and  professionally respected  Military force which it desires. 

Cooperation with India’s Defense Ministry under a Defense Agreement signed in 2001 (ratified in 2006) has  started  making progress after initial foot dragging.  Defense Minister Anthony was in Indonesia last year, while his counterpart is expected to come to  India  in 2013.  Indonesia is today the world’s largest archipelago but smallest Defense spender, but this image is set to change over the next few years. India should  expect defense cooperation with Indonesia to increase in step with  her unfolding ambitions.

* Indonesia is familiar with Islamic terror from the 1950s when the Dar ul Islam , who wanted  the Pancasila Constitution replaced by  the Jakarta Charter(essentially Shariah law ) had  over taken parts of West Java and Sumatra . In their book “Subversion as Foreign Policy” George and Audrey Kahin have recounted CIA’s active  role in the  PRRI rebellion.

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