Feb 21, 2024 Last Updated 10:11 PM, Feb 20, 2024

Mother of the nation

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Edward Aspinall

How should we interpret the fall of Abdurrahman Wahid and his replacement by Megawati Sukarnoputri? Was this, as the MPR argued, a legitimate exercise by Indonesia's supreme constitutional body to remove an incompetent leader? Or was it, as argued by President Abdurrahman and his supporters, a victory for resurgent Suhartoist forces? This second view has, especially overseas, become the orthodox interpretation. It has some validity, but the former has more.

Certainly, there were those in the military, in Golkar and the bureaucracy who were hostile to some of President Abdurrahman's policy initiatives, such as his proposal in 2000 to rehabilitate the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) or his early willingness to negotiate with independence supporters in Aceh and West Papua. It is also true that the momentum of Indonesia's reformasihas long been visibly failing. However, to view Abdurrahman's removal as a decisive return to the past is a misreading of events. By focusing too much on the battle over the presidency, such a view misses the larger picture.

In retrospect, Indonesia was always going to have a narrow window for dramatic democratic change. In the months before and immediately after the fall of President Suharto, long pent-up desires for reform were unleashed. Beginning on campuses in February-March 1998, a large and variegated movement for democracy sprang up and rapidly spread throughout the archipelago. When Suharto resigned on 21 May, there was an explosion of civil society. Demonstrations forced corrupt local officials from office around the country. Peasants occupied land taken from them in the past. Scores of new political parties, labour unions, anti-corruption bodies and other organisations were formed.

In response, the remaining New Order elite facilitated a rapid restructuring of the political system. President Habibie oversaw a remarkable liberalisation of the political parties, electoral laws, labour unions, the press and much else. His presidency now looks like the high water mark of reformasi. This does not mean he was at heart a liberal, although his supporters do argue this, but rather that politics is determined more by the broader alignment of political forces within society than by who is president.

Under Habibie, when it was still possible to identify the government with the old regime, it proved relatively easy to maintain the reformasi movement outside parliament. However, as in every transition from authoritarian rule, the key challenge was to institutionalise the democratic impulses of the mass movements and make them a permanent feature of the political landscape. Numerous obstacles stood in the way. Chief among them was the fracturing of the political map. Divisions between 'opposition' and 'status quo' forces were cross-cut by other divisions, such as those between secular and Islamic groupings, within the Islamic community itself, and between parties led more by personalities than policies. Add to this the weakness of democratic institutions after 32 years of Suharto's rule, pervasive corruption, a deep economic crisis and a host of other problems.


When Abdurrahman Wahid was elected president in October 1999, much of the foreign press represented it as a victory of 'reformist forces'. He was in fact placed there by a coalition which drew heavily on Suharto's New Order. Many Golkar and military leaders feared a Megawati-led clean sweep of senior officialdom. Many in the major Islamic-based parties were equally fearful that a secular-oriented Megawati presidency would reverse the advances they had made in the late Suharto and Habibie periods. These two blocs provided Abdurrahman with the votes he needed, and he now needed to appease them. A cumbersome 'national unity' government resulted. As Indonesia's first democratically elected president assembled his government, therefore, it proved impossible to draw a clear line between the New Order past and the democratic future. This basic fact dogged all subsequent attempts to carry out substantial reform.

President Abdurrahman did have a deep philosophical commitment to pluralist democracy and a conspicuous commitment to social and religious diversity. He appointed some prominent reformers to cabinet and other posts. Early on he took some important steps to reduce the military's political role. He also encouraged legal reform, promoted dialogue with secessionist leaders in Aceh and West Papua and reconciliation with the East Timorese, and attempted to end discrimination against the ethnic Chinese minority. Even so, many of the major reform programs (such as decentralisation) merely implemented changes made under Habibie.

However, strong currents were flowing against reform. The June 1999 election was the culmination of Indonesia's democratic transition. But it also largely succeeded in domesticating reformasienergies. The shift of focus from the streets to parliament, from mobilisation to legislation, called for a new kind of politics based on negotiation, compromise and incremental change. In the regions new coalitions sprang up between the new parties and old military, bureaucratic and business groupings. In many places Golkar reasserted its dominance. Even where 'reformist' parties like PDI-P and President Abdurrahman's own PKB were dominant, local politics were frequently marked by a resurgence of 'money politics' and political gangsterism. At the same time, with the line between 'reformists' and 'status quo' inside the government now very blurred, the reformasimovement on the outside lost momentum, symbolised by growing fractiousness and apathy in the student movement.

Determined leadership from the president could still have resulted in serious reform. However, Abdurrahman frittered away any such chance by his increasingly destructive leadership style. Armed with infinite self-confidence and imperious indifference to criticism, he alienated his ministers, rode roughshod over the parliament, made and broke promises with a cavalier style and frequently made blatantly false public claims. Reports of graft within the palace became rife. Most importantly, he failed to construct a strong reformist bloc within the government, parliament or society. Personal loyalty became the key criteria for the rise and fall of cabinet ministers, conservatives and reformists alike. This alienation of the entire political elite, not a supposed alliance of the 'status quo', accounts for the end of his presidency.

In order to shore up support, Abdurrahman countenanced a return to New Order-style policies, most obviously by tolerating renewed military operations in Aceh from March-April 2001. His government even began to wind back some reforms made during the Habibie era (such as generous severance payments for workers - it took an outburst of unrest for this reversal to be reviewed). He personally turned to authoritarian methods: threatening the media, repoliticising the military and eventually taking the dictatorial path of attempting to dissolve parliament. The strongest argument against the 'conservative conspiracy' interpretation of Abdurrahman's dismissal is that he had in fact simply ceased to be a block to conservative policies. Despite his claims to the contrary, there was no clear dividing line between 'status quo' forces lined up against him and 'democrats' standing behind him.


The conspiracy view also misreads Megawati's own position. In much of the international press, she is portrayed as a 'captive', even an 'agent,' of military interests. However, nothing in her record suggests that Megawati is beholden to the military. On the contrary, she was steadfast in the face of strong military pressure in the final years of the Suharto regime. It should be remembered that Abdurrahman Wahid had at that time succumbed to similar pressures by entering into a de facto alliance with Suharto's daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana (Tutut). It may indeed be true that Megawati supported intensified military operations in Aceh and Papua. But Abdurrahman was also willing to support these policies.

Megawati Sukarnoputri is a difficult character to read, largely due to her well-known reticence, even aloofness. She lacks Abdurrahman Wahid's connections with Indonesia's liberal intelligentsia and foreign intellectuals, and his ready wit. Her public statements often convey a frustratingly general commitment to constitutionalism and democracy in a language easily understood by the mass of the population. At the same time, they evince a strong commitment to political order and, especially, defence of the unitary state. In many respects she is a classical populist politician, presenting herself as a mystical embodiment of the popular will. As 'mother of the nation', she projects an image of security and comfort at a time of disturbing political change and economic dislocation. It is true that populism can readily be combined with an authoritarian style and ruthless economic austerity.

Many Indonesians fear reformasihas run out of steam. They may well be right. But its weakening has less to do with the new president than with wider forces at work in Indonesia. This is largely a by-product of the shift from street politics to parliamentarism. It reflects the messiness of Indonesia's political landscape, and the appearance of new, usually local, coalitions of bureaucratic, business and political power. It is highly unlikely that Megawati's ascension marks a dramatic return to full-blown Suharto-style authoritarianism. Her government is based essentially on the same combination of forces which brought Abdurrahman to power, with the addition of her own PDI-P. Probably it will present a similar policy mix, minus the chaos generated by his personal style.

Under Abdurrahman, two vital years were lost on the road to political reform. It may now prove impossible to recreate a clear division between 'reformasi' and 'status quo' forces, or to recapture the promise of the first post-Suharto years.

Edward Aspinall (E.Aspinall@anu.edu.au) is a post-doctoral fellow at the Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 68: Oct - Dec 2001

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