Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Escape from the past?

Published: Sep 12, 2007
Has Indonesia escaped from its authoritarian legacy?

Gerry van Klinken

People who write about transitions to democracy around the world often make it look so easy, but of course it never is. This election too has left so many questions unanswered that there has hardly been a moment to celebrate. Yet sometimes we who watch Indonesia have so trained ourselves to expect more of the same that we can’t recognise the big one for looking. The election did happen, and it was much freer than any in the lifetime of most Indonesians. The country is on the way to democracy.

An Australian friend in Bali described to me ‘a golden, crystalline feeling’ on 7 June in Ubud. People lined up peacefully for hours, silent and focussed on their vote. They were angered, and determined to right the wrongs of the past. Afterwards they were proud of what they had done in that booth.

It could all have happened so differently. Rioting could have engulfed the country until the election was postponed or cancelled. The military could have declared a state of emergency. Rivers of money could have so distorted the result that Golkar once more emerged with a major victory. But the campaign was mostly peaceful, and monitors at least in the heartlands of Java and Bali were pretty happy with what they saw. Some suspect the high Golkar vote in the less-monitored outer islands was due to traditional intimidation as much as respect for Habibie. But the army seems to have kept its promise to remain neutral during the campaign.

Just two years ago, most Indonesia watchers thought they knew the shape of Indonesia well into the 21st century: a military-backed government, a booming economy, and merely decorative elections. It was more important to study the next generation of generals than to observe political parties. Anyone who suggested the country would have a popular, civilian government by late 1999 was from another planet. Suddenly that has changed. At last the voters matter. Pre-election polling - a primitive science as Suharto never allowed it - told us they felt good about the ballot, and that many favoured Megawati’s PDI-Struggle party.

An electoral commission led by former Interior Minister Rudini vigorously resisted Suharto-era habits of government interference. It stopped most cabinet ministers from campaigning. It permitted the small People’s Democratic Party PRD, portrayed by the government as a dangerous communist party reborn, to participate. It stuck heroically to a schedule so tight it threatened to collapse under the weight of logistical problems.

Thousands of independent monitors from various organisations, some from overseas (including Jimmy Carter), fanned out across the archipelago to watch proceedings. This too was new - although KIPP had laid the groundwork with the 1997 election.

Today, just over a week after the election and with less than two thirds of the 100 million or so votes counted, the talk is not of military coups but of coalitions and party room intrigue - exactly the kind of talk one might hear in a multi-party democracy such as Italy.

As the polls predicted, PDI-Struggle came in streets ahead of its nearest rival. That rival was Golkar, thus confirming that this was really a two-horse race. Behind it came Abdurrahman Wahid’s liberal Islamic PKB, then the Suharto-era Islamic party PPP, followed by Amien Rais’ open reformist party PAN. These were the big five. Their strong showing put paid to fears - there were so many fears! - that the electoral process would be swamped by its 48 participants.

As it is, there will be coalitions, since not even PDI-Struggle has enough votes to rule alone, but they will probably not be unimaginably complex. This magazine will be at the printers before the final outcome is known. Most say a coalition will emerge around each of the two major contenders, one of which will then claim government. Megawati’s PDI-Struggle and Abdurrahman Wahid’s PKB have a history of working together. Some smaller secular nationalist parties will also join this group.

On the other side, Golkar will be joined by PPP and a number of smaller Islamic parties. Unfortunately this places most ‘political’ Islamic representatives on the conservative side. Already some of these party leaders are saying that religion forbids a woman president. The poor ‘political’ Islamic showing put to rest (yet more) fears that Indonesian politics remained mired in the religious debates of yesterday. But there is a danger of wounded anger from this side.

Amien Rais too has reason to be disappointed at his own poor showing, for different reasons. But, along with the army (which remains a power in parliament), his party PAN appears to hold the balance of power. In his oppositionist past he was close to Megawati and Abdurrahman Wahid, and many hope fervently he will join them now to form a government. Given Amien Rais’ Islamic connections it would help reduce the religious polarisation between government and opposition. A PDI-PKB-PAN coalition would have more right to call itself ‘reformist’ than a Golkar-led one, which Indonesians love to call ‘status quo’. Unfortunately, a number of PAN members may be thinking the unthinkable - they want the party to join Golkar if the offer is right.

Yet it is difficult to imagine that a public which voted so strongly for Megawati will accept a government in which she does not play the decisive role. ‘We have escaped from the evil genius Suharto’, said commentator Wim Witoelar. ‘Now we want Megawati to be our mother’. Megawati may not have led her people to victory against tyranny, as Cory Aquino did in the Philippines in February 1986, but she is an honest woman who will restore a sense of popular sovereignty.


This election will see a lot of old faces exit left and new ones enter right stage. That kind of ‘elite circulation’ will shake up corrupt networks and introduce new ideas. It almost doesn’t matter what they are thinking. But of course it does matter, and the faces are not all new. The truth is that all the major parties and players - except PAN - are Suharto-era leftovers. There is a conservatism about them that cannot yet grasp the big changes happening in their own country.

Student radicals insist the agenda for fundamental change contains four items - prosecute Suharto, democratise the fascist 1945 Constitution, get the military out of politics, and do something to satisfy the regions outside Java. On none of those issues has PDI-Struggle distinguished itself from Golkar. Some suspect they may be quite happy to become the new Golkar with a feminine face.

A Brisbane student studying the electoral process, Lars Bjorge, thinks the ruling elite had stalled on the idea of elections until Megawati and three other opposition figures issued the so-called Ciganjur Declaration in November 1998. When they saw how mild opposition intentions were, a comforting awareness dawned on them - ‘we can work with these people’. From then on the election was back on track.

Any new government faces almost overwhelming problems – especially in the economy and in the regions. A coalition government will find it practically impossible to apply unpopular, authoritarian methods. The glow of Megawati’s popularity will not be sufficient if they are unwilling to embrace democracy wholeheartedly. And that means embracing the students’ agenda of radical change. For that we may need to wait till the next election.

Gerry van Klinken edits ‘Inside Indonesia’.

Inside Indonesia 59: Jul-Sep 1999

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