Dec 06, 2023 Last Updated 11:47 PM, Dec 5, 2023

Review: Analysing Indonesian politics after the New Order

Review: Analysing Indonesian politics after the New Order
Published: Nov 06, 2011

Two recent edited collections on Indonesian politics assess its democratic merits

David Reeve

These edited collections on contemporary Indonesian politics are each interesting and useful by themselves, but are much more so when read together. There are stimulating comparisons as different scholars work similar materials to different conclusions. In both volumes there is also a strong sense of writers returning to familiar themes (Jenkins on Suharto, Barton on Gus Dur, Jones on Islamic radicalism, Tomsa on parties and so on), but there is still enough here that is lively and informative.

The Return to Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia (edited by Reuter) is a slim volume of eight essays by seven scholars from various Australian universities, number 30 in the Annual Indonesian Lecture Series. The essays are around 13 pages, enough for a substantial contribution. Soeharto’s New Order and its Legacy: Essays in Honour of Harold Crouch (edited by Aspinall and Fealy) include papers from a 2005 conference, and is about twice as long with 12 longer essays, a short preface honouring Harold Crouch, and a substantial introduction from Edward Aspinall and Greg Fealy.of


Both books argue that Habibie turned out, surprisingly, to be the most reforming president of the four after Suharto. In the Aspinall and Fealy collection Dewi Fortuna Anwar gives an insider’s account, emphasising that Habibie had spent much of his youth and young adulthood in Germany, and had had significant exposure to Western systems and views in his travels as Minister. Also, he viewed himself as a ‘strict constitutionalist’ who was carrying out ‘accelerated evolution’, using scientific and engineering examples to explain his actions. In Reuter’s edited book Lanti takes a quite different position proposing that Habibie’s policies should be understood as a product of his being an Outer islands santri politician, ‘a seberang modernist Muslim’. Greg Barton says that he proved to be ‘an unexpectedly reformist president precisely because he played the role as a non-political actor’. The tension between these three views is tantalising.

In the Reuter volume there is a chapter each on Gus Dur (Abdurrahman Wahid) and Megawati. Greg Barton argues the importance in the democratic transition of an ‘underestimated civil capacity [that] lay primarily with mass-based Islamic organisations Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama’ and particular Islamic leaders. He argues that there was more reform under Gus Dur than there would have been if Megawati had triumphed in 1999, and points to his firm stand against the military, building press freedom and general transparency, transforming political culture and raising expectations (I rather thought he lowered them). Angus McIntyre discusses Megawati’s preoccupation with her father’s ‘deeply flawed’ legacy, and argues that she showed varying degrees of flexibility and inventiveness in ‘engaging its components’ – ‘she strove to the limits of her understanding and ability to reconcile his preferred of government with the democratic tendencies of her own time’. She was unsympathetic on Papua, but helped provide the presidential democracy with a long nationalist pedigree.

In the ANU volume, by contrast, Ed Aspinall takes on Gus Dur and Megawati in a single framework. He is much more critical and proposes a quite radical reinterpretation: ‘that the New Order encouraged a distinctive “semi-oppositional” style in civil and political society, that both Abdurrahman and Megawati were products and exemplars of this style, and that many of the vicissitudes of their presidencies can be explained by this dynamic’. This is fascinating, and leads to the conundrum that Habibie, the very son and product of the New Order, was much less affected by what Aspinall calls ‘the years of political socialisation under the New Order’ than the two leaders who seemed to be its opponents.

A weakness of the Aspinall and Fealy volume is that its contents mostly only go up to about 2004 (due to the fact that it is based on papers from a 2005 conference). The Reuter volume reaches the 2004-2009 presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with a treatment by Ariel Heryanto, who argues that Indonesia is more liberated and democratic than has been generally acknowledged, while warning that this does not mean that all will be well. He deals especially with incidents involving press freedom in Indonesia, but much of his criticism is reserved for what he calls uncritical valorisation of democracy – that is, the unbalanced portrayal of Indonesia, magic wands, self delusion and ethno-centrism overseas.

Party politics

There are three chapters on how party politics actually works. In the Aspinall and Fealy book Jun Honna looks at the legacy of the military in the local politics of West, Central and East Java in 1999-2004. He provides a chilling picture of the graft, violence and manipulation of protest in local politics: ‘concession regimes’, ‘concession hunting among local elites’. The TNI remains an important player, but more flexible and more decentralised. The military commands were forced to make new alliances in each province, and did so successfully, playing king-making roles in the gubernatorial elections and retaining substantial local political power, particularly through the Muspida (regional leadership assembly), now called the ‘Muspida++’.

In the same collection, Marcus Mietzner examines more than 300 direct elections of governors, regents and mayors between mid-2005 and early 2007, asking whether they empower the electorate or entrench the New Order oligarchy. He provides excellent material on the backgrounds of candidates and the irrelevance of ideology. His conclusions are more optimistic than Honna’s. He points to the ‘towering dominance of entrenched elites’ but sets against that a greater maturity and self-confidence in the electorate, and a decline in primordialism. He argues that the voters were enabled to have a significant say in the outcomes; about 40 per cent of incumbents lost their jobs.

In the Reuter volume, Dirk Tomsa provides an overview of the parties according to various criteria, sounding a note of some hope amidst the torrent of criticism – ‘low quality still better than no stability at all’. He sees the parties as indispensable for the future; ‘they have had a significant impact on the shape of Indonesia’s young democracy’ but ‘the next step must be to fill shape with substance’, with a strengthened role for parties.

Islamic extremism

In Aspinall and Fealy, Sidney Jones looks at the New Order legacy in the formation of Jemaah Islamiyah, pointing to three factors: the BAKIN decision to help resuscitate Darul Islam (‘New Order hubris’ that backfired), the ways in which political Islam was suppressed, and the fusion of Darul Islam with the Dewan Dakwah Islaamiyah Indonesia. Thomas Reuter examines Islam as an alternative political model, arguing that Indonesian politics since 2001 has been prominently shaped by world events, notably 11 September and the War on Terror, with a muting of voices against violence and bigotry. He depicts ‘a see-sawing of public opinion’ with much vivid material on Indonesian perceptions of world events; and is fairly optimistic that the majority Indonesian public consistently opposes those they see as responsible for violence.

There are other strengths, particularly in the larger ANU volume. It has two chapters on economics, with Hal Hill and Dionisius Narjoko looking at the lessons to be drawn from industrialisation in the Suharto era (legacy), and Chris Manning’s fine piece on labour after Suharto. David Jenkins examines Suharto’s fundraising in the 1940s and 1950s and what it shows about his personality and later practices (‘exceptional greed’). Ken Ward has anintriguing and original piece on Javanismin Suharto’s thinking.


Robert Cribb is the only writer to appear in both volumes, with the old master displaying his skills. In the Aspinall and Fealy volume he surveys a body of scholarship from 1973 (van Doorn) to 2002 (Noordholt) by way of McVey and Anderson, which sees the New Order as the heir of the late colonial state. He puts the contrasting view that in important ways it was rather ‘the apotheosis of reaction against the colonial order’. In Reuter, with the jazzy title of ‘The incredible shrinking Pancasila’, Cribb argues that ‘Suharto no longer hovers like a ghost over Indonesian politics’, for which he is ‘deeply thankful’.

For me, William Case’s final essay in the Aspinall and Fealy volume is stimulating and exhilarating, worth the price of both books alone. He uses an incisive comparative perspective on the fall of the New Order to argue that Southeast Asia has been in general resistant to democratisation, and that Indonesia’s democracy has suffered elite capture: ‘In simple terms, then, democracy persists in Indonesia because it sooner sustains, than challenges the standings of elites.’

Analytical influences

The presences of three great Indonesia analysts hover over these two volumes. The Aspinall and Fealy volume is dedicated to Harold Crouch to commemorate his role in Indonesian studies, stressing the breadth of his concerns and the impact of his works. The preface highlights personal qualities: painstaking care for factual accuracy, circumspection, even-handedness and fairness, deep knowledge, personal intimacy with political actors, sensitivity, scholarly commitment, personal integrity. In chapter six of that collection Jamie Mackie deals directly with Crouch’s famous 1979 essay on patrimonialism, but reworks and reinvents the concept to make it as relevant 32 years later. His is a great tribute, which gains more resonance with Mackie’s own death in May 2011. The title, ‘The return to constitutional democracy’ can do no other than to remind us of Herb Feith’s famous book of 1962, his death ten years ago and his biography launched in August 2011. Feith, Mackie and Crouch – a formidable combination.

David Reeve ( is now in Yogyakarta with ACICIS, developing pre-service and in-service programs for Australian teachers of Indonesian.

Thomas Reuter (ed.), The Return to Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia, Annual Indonesia Lecture Series (AILS) number 30, Monash Asia Institute, Caulfield: Monash University Press, 2010.

Edward Aspinall and Greg Fealy (eds), Soeharto’s New Order and its Legacy: Essays in Honour of Harold Crouch, Asian Studies series Monograph, ANU E Press, 2010.

Inside Indonesia 106: Oct-Dec 2011

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