Can Indonesia look forward to a more democratic future?

by Michael van Langenberg
The Australian, 13 August 1996

The actions by the Suharto government in engineering the removal of Megawati Sukarnoputri from the leadership of the Democratic Party (PDI) and the crack-down on the tiny student-based People's Democratic Party (PRD) now dominate political attentions within Indonesia. But they are ancillary to the main game in town -- the next presidential election in 1998 and the post-Suharto era of Indonesian politics. What do these recent events in Jakarta indicate about the nature of the Suharto leadership and its capacity to manage the immediate future direction of Indonesian domestic politics? The linchpin of the Indonesian "New Order" state is the presidency with Suharto, as both president and armed forces commander-in-chief, as the core. The history of the New Order, since its inception in 1966, shows Suharto as a thorougly modernising authoritarian ruler, much more so than some kind of traditional Javanese sultan which he is frequently portrayed as being.

Recent events highlight Suharto's central role in a pro-active political strategy. This had four key aspects in the past month: removing a potentially troublesome "opposition" in the form of the Megawati-led PDI; re-focussing public attention on the presidency as crucial to stability; giving a dramatic warning of the dangers of public disorder through the attack on the PDI headquarters in Jakarta and its violent aftermath; and re-emphasising the presence of "subversive" infections within the body politic (in this case the PRD with a "communist" ghost in the background), which require urgent removal.

Ahead lie the continued importance of maintaining presidential control of the armed forces, ensuring a tame Parliament in the consequence of the 1997 general elections, and beginning constitutional arrangements for a post-Suharto presidency. Public concern and strongly held grievances about the extent of inequities in wealth distribution, of nepotism, and of financial corruption within the body politic are substantial. These are conditions that add to the political unpredictabilities which will surround transition to a post-Suharto leadership.

One outcome is obvious. Any new president who takes over in a peaceful transition from Suharto, will have far less power than his/her predecessor: that person will not be able to demand the authority of being the restorer of "order" and "development" after a preceding era of "chaos", as Suharto has done. This increases the probabilities of one of two sharply contrasting options -- continued instutitionalisation of the present authoritarian regime, or a "weak" regime unable to contain internecine conflict and public disorder.

Are there options for a more democratic future? The main theme of the public demonstrations in support of Megawati has been the demand for greater "democratization". But none of her public statements suggest a coherent understanding of how a democratic polity might function. Rather, she has sought to present herself as a representative of "the people", echoing her father's earlier construction of himself as the "voice of the people". Such discourse of "Sukarnoism" is not one that sits easily with a commitment to a democratic polity, certainly not one with a primary concern for human rights. The Megawati forces, therefore, would not seem to offer any coherent agenda for a new, democratic political order nor to be a focus for a populist "people's power" movement.

Why then, did the Suharto governent take such precipitate and strong action to remove Megawati from the PDI leadership? One factor seems to be that Megawati could prove troublesome at the 1997 elections by drawing away disaffected voters from both the government party, Golkar, and the now tame "Islamic" coalition, the PPP. This would have produced a difficult minority within the post-election Parliament, especially being an opposition minority with electoral legitimacy. As well there is the likelihood that the deliberate use of force to remove Megawati supporters from the PDI headquarters was intended to reiterate an old theme associating "Sukarnoism" with economic chaos and public disorder.

In the 1990s this would be an effective way of making the growing consumer-oriented middle class nervous about taking challenges to the status quo too far. How then is the transition to a post-Suharto presidency in Indonesia likely to come about? There is the ever present reality of Indonesia's recent political history. Indonesia has had two presidents both of whom came to power in circumstances of extreme social upheaval and mass violence. Can transition to the third president be effected not only peacefully but also in a way that would ensure the legacy of the present incumbent and the safety of his family's considerable material wealth? One model beginning to gain feasibility is some adaptation of the Singapore arrangement. Either at the next presidential election in 1998 or sometime after circumstances could be constructed to require Suharto to step up out of the presidency into some elevated position responsible for guarding the national estate. Suharto has already been invested by the Parliament with the title of "Father of Development", signifying precisely such a role. A quiescent Parliament after 1997 would ensure the election of a new president in accordance with Suharto's wishes and broadly acceptable to the ruling oligarchy. Such a move would effect both a formal transfer to a new president and the continued authority of Suharto at the national political helm. Whether such a strategy will, in the longer term, manage the tensions building up at both the bottom and middle strata of Indonesian society, is uncertain. It may, nevertheless, be the most feasible option available to the present regime.

15 Aug 1996

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