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Oh for democracy

Published: Sep 30, 2007

R. William Liddle, Leadership and culture in Indonesian politics, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1996, 314pp.

Reviewed by CHRIS PENDERS

The ten essays in this collection were written in the period 1984-1993. In the introduction he examines a number of conceptual frameworks superimposed by social scientists to capture the essence of political behaviour in the Third World. Liddle concludes that at least in the case of Indonesia this kind of probing does little to reveal political reality. His first hand experience in Indonesia has somewhat dented his belief in the universal validity of the Wilsonian dogma of political freedom and Western democracy. Clearly the overthrow of colonialism was not automatically followed by the introduction of a lasting democracy and the acceptance of modern - read Western - values.

Field work in North Sumatra led him to conclude that the modernisation theory of social and political change was not applicable. Equally, the foreign capital dependence theory to explain the impoverishment of the new African and Asian states had to be discarded in view of Indonesia's rapid development under Suharto. Instead, he found salvation in the writings of radical choice theorists Warren Ilchman and Norman Uphoff, and of the development economist Albert Hirschman, whose dictum of the 'passion of the possible' was, Liddle thought, particularly apt in explaining the role of Suharto and his government. This approach was in his view more realistic than the determinism that emphasised the constraints imposed on leaders by their own culture.

The essays make fascinating reading and highlight a number of new insights. The discussion on the relationship between culture and politics, and the march forward of Islamic orthodoxy, is particularly interesting. The review of military power and its future seemed less compelling. Still, a yearning for the dawn of democracy in Indonesia, presumably on the Western model, seems to run like a red thread through the whole of the book. Liddle's assertion that democracy is the most suitable form of government for a modern nation state is in fact challenged by most of the political elites in the Third World. Suggesting that a transition stage in democratisation might be on the way in Indonesia, and that Suharto's departure will bring substantial political change, sounds more like wishful thinking. Major problems such as institutionalised corruption and the lack of the rule of law will surely be extremely difficult to solve. It is fascism rather than democracy that seem to be on the march in the world, including in the West.

Dr Chris Penders has written several books on Indonesian history. He lives in Canberra and is preparing a study of the demise of Dutch economic colonialism.

Inside Indonesia 51: Jul-Sep 1997

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