Dec 08, 2023 Last Updated 10:51 AM, Dec 7, 2023

How might the Suharto era conclude?

Michael van Langenberg

At the heart of the recent public violence and political upheaval in Indonesia is the question of the direction that the final stage of the Suharto era is likely to take. Are alternative political forces gathering strength to an extent that the Suharto regime will be forced to give way to a more populist democratic order? 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?


One leading Australian analyst of Indonesian affairs, Harold Crouch, noted recently that many Indonesians consider Suharto views his role as more of a traditional Javanese ruler or sultan, than as an elected president. Such rulers seek endorsement as embodiment of communal spirit, rather than desiring popular election. That is indeed a view of Suharto held increasingly within Indonesia, especially amongst the middle classes.

It is also a view that appears to have its origins outside of Indonesia, chiefly in early academic analyses of Suharto himself and of the 'New Order' polity emanating from the US and Germany. The subsequent dissemination of this view within Indonesia would itself be an interesting facet of any intellectual history of the Suharto era.

Applying the Javanese sultan model to the Suharto presidency is, however, an excessively restricting approach to analysis of Indonesia's New Order state, not least because of the implicit 'orientalism' that frequently informs it. The Presidency is the linchpin of the state, the heart of its oligarchic centre. Suharto, as President and armed forces commander-in-chief, is the core of the Presidency itself.

Modern samurai

Some traditional Javanese notions about ideal leadership do indeed inform part of Suharto's own mentality. His public statements since the 1960s show convincing evidence of this. But the history of the New Order more importantly shows Suharto as a thoroughly modernising authoritarian ruler - as much modern samurai or Bismarckian as he may be some idealised Javanese sultan.

Suharto might indeed see himself as a contemporary version of the just prince (ratu adil) of Javanese mythology, bringing Indonesia (and Java) into a golden age of prosperity. But in the Suharto version it is a distinctly dynamic, at times even populist, notion of royalty - combining farmer, soldier and prince in the role of leading a modernising, technologically advanced nation-state.

Another problem with the Javanese sultan model applied to contemporary Indonesian politics is that it tends to place too much emphasis on Suharto's politics as reactive and defensive. On the contrary, the Indonesian government's manipulation of the recent PDI crisis shows just the opposite.


It highlights Suharto's central role in an emphatically pro- active political strategy. Immediately after the 27 July riots the President called a series of meetings to determine government responses to the violence, especially to decide where responsibility was to be laid.

The strategy so far appears to have been as follows: bringing internal divisions in the PDI to a head (so as to remove a potentially troublesome 'opposition'), re-focussing public attention on the presidency as crucial to state stability (via Suharto's health trip to Germany), constructing a dramatic warning of the dangers of public disorder (in the attack by special troops on the PDI headquarters in Jakarta, and its violent aftermath), and re-emphasising the presence of 'subversive' infections within the body politic that 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. Active strategies for achieving all of these seem to be emerging from within the presidential palace. Whether they succeed or not will, of course, depend ultimately on uncertainties of health (Suharto's) and the fragilities of transferring leadership within an authoritarian regime.

In the political play of all this, Suharto is still much more a late twentieth century politician than traditional sultan. The events of the past month in Indonesia have underlined to Indonesians the political pre-eminence of Suharto himself, and of the presidency, within the state system. Only a week before the events of 27 July a survey of Indonesian business executives showed that 75% considered a sudden change in President would affect stability to 'a great extent' and 60.9% believed that Suharto had not yet groomed a competent successor.

No challenge

At present, there seems to be no serious open challenge to that pre-eminence; neither from Megawati Sukarnoputri nor even from Abdurrahman Wahid, the outspokenly critical chairman of the largest Muslim organisation in the country, Nahdatul Ulama.

But 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 and widely prevalent. These are conditions that add to the political unpredictabilities that will surround transition to a post- Suharto leadership.


Given such unpredictabilities in the transition process, what are the most likely strategic options to be pursued by Suharto the politician in that process? 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. Most importantly, 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 since seizing effective power in 1966.

This increases the probabilities of one of two sharply contrasting options. One is continued institutionalisation of the present authoritarian regime, managing the use of 'carrot and stick' in its relations with civil society. The other is a 'weak' regime unable to contain internecine conflict and public disorder.


What options for a third, more democratic post-Suharto future might the recent events in Indonesia suggest? The main rhetorical theme of the public demonstrations in support of Megawati has been the demand for greater 'democratisation' of the Indonesian political system. Would Megawati herself, whether from 'opposition' or as a future leader of government, offer a realistic democratic alternative to the present Suharto regime? So far the answer remains unclear, perhaps even in the negative.

None of Megawati's public statements, for example, suggest a coherent understanding of how a democratic polity might function in Indonesia. Rather, she has sought to present herself as a representative of 'the people', principally echoing her father's earlier construction of himself as the 'voice of the people' (lidah rakyat) in the late 1950s.

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 would not seem to offer any coherent agenda for structural change to a new, democratic political order; nor to be a focus for a populist 'people's power' movement that may replace the present Suharto government.

Why then did the Suharto government 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.

A second factor 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.

No peoples power

A tendency in analyses of the recent events in Indonesia to draw parallels with either the Aung Sang Su Ki-led democracy movement in Burma, or with the earlier 'peoples power' movement that brought down the Marcos regime in the Philippines, is to ignore how specifically Indonesian the context of the PDI affair is.

The Suharto regime and its relationship with civil society in Indonesia in 1996 is not a replication of the SLORC junta in Burma. Nor does it bear much resemblance to the latter-day circumstances of the Marcos regime and the events that galvanised the Peoples Power movement in the Philippines. The differences from both Marcos' Philippines and SLORC's Burma are substantial. Moreover, the Indonesian 'opposition' has yet to develop an institutionalised democratic agenda to match that in the Burmese case.

So, from which political direction and how is the transition to a post-Suharto presidency in Indonesia likely to come about? To begin with 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.

Three questions are central to the current political discourse. Will the new middle classes countenance the possibility of 'traditional' violence in the transition to the third president? Can such transition in fact be effected peacefully? And can the transition be effected in such a way as to 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 some time 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.

It is worth noting here that Suharto has already been invested by parliament with the title '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. A change in president would be the start of a process of transition to the post-Suharto era.

Whether such a strategy will in the longer term survive or manage the tensions and grievances 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.

Michael van Langenberg teaches at the University of Sydney. A shorter version of this article appeared in The Australian on 13 August 1996.

Inside Indonesia 48: Oct-Dec 1996

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