Apr 24, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

How far to meaningful democracy? - 1

How far to meaningful democracy? - 1

Vedi R. Hadiz

   Golkar Party
   Timur Angin

Is Indonesia a democracy? The answer is unquestionably ‘Yes’. With the possible exception of the Philippines – and due to recent developments in Thailand – Indonesia should in fact be considered the most democratic country in all of Southeast Asia at this point in time. But what kind of democracy is Indonesia? Who has benefited most from the democratisation process, who has benefited less, and why? This is where the problem gets a little more complicated.

If a foreign tourist were to visit Indonesia today, for the first time in, say, ten years, then the extent to which Indonesia has democratised should become immediately obvious. Reading the newspaper in the morning, watching the endless talk-fests on television at night, or talking to the people in the streets or warung of Jakarta or some other city, the visitor might actually be rather surprised at the extent to which people will now speak their minds and express differences of opinion on public issues. All this contrasts sharply with the stifling uniformity of thought that Suharto’s New Order regime tried to impose on Indonesians (though certainly not always successfully).

The long absent visitor might also like to have a look at what’s going on in the smaller towns or the villages. While doing so, he or she might stumble upon some activity related to a pilkada (local election). With all the posters depicting the innumerable candidates and parties, speeches attacking opponents or the local government made at competing rallies, and local newspaper articles suggesting dirty electoral tactics, the visitor might find the ‘new’ Indonesia somewhat bewildering.

So even the casual tourist is bound to notice that Indonesia has got things such as free elections, freedom of speech, of the press, and also of association, that are usually linked to a democracy – and that it didn’t have before. The fact that Indonesia has become a democracy following three decades of rigid, often brutal, authoritarian rule is an achievement of which the people of the country should rightly be proud.

Strangely familiar

But it might eventually occur to the foreign visitor, travelling through Indonesia for the first time in more than a decade, that some of those faces on television and in the newspapers appear strangely familiar – except that they were saying very different, far less ‘democratic’ things so many years ago. And wasn’t the guy running for mayor in the local election the same one who used to hang around with the local New Order bigwigs in that town? (He may have been some sort of assistant to the New Order-era mayor, a businessman who was friendly with officials, or some other kind of hanger-on). His running mate could well look familiar too – perhaps he was the thuggish preman (gangster) that all the merchants and parking attendants at the local market were so afraid of?

Some of those faces on television appear strangely familiar.

Our visitor might then take another look at the day’s newspaper and note the articles about rampant corruption, protesting peasants being shot at by police, and factory workers being threatened by thugs – and find something, discomfortingly, of the ‘old’ Indonesia in the ‘new’. Of course such articles would have rarely made it past the ever–vigilant editors of the New Order era, who lived in terror of losing the all–important press licence that used to so impede press freedoms.

Even so, the foreign visitor may remain puzzled. He or she probably expected to find that old Suhartoists and their lackeys would by now have retreated far into the background, if they were not languishing in prison for their role in the dictatorship. It surely is bizarre to see them dispensing ‘words of wisdom’ on public affairs on television or running for office in a democracy, apparently free of any burden from their past. Also puzzling, in a democracy, is the idea that workers or poor people in general should remain so vulnerable to arbitrary power.

In other words, our casual visitor has found the enigma of Indonesian democracy that many students of Indonesia have been grappling with over the last decade.

In a number of writings now, some co-authored with colleagues, I have suggested that the types of social interests that have come to preside over Indonesia’s democratic institutions remain largely those that were nurtured during the New Order. These social interests have now reorganised and reinvented themselves as ‘democrats’. This was possible because of the absence of coherent, genuinely reformist social coalitions that could take advantage of the state of flux that existed immediately after Suharto’s resignation in May 1998. Far from being swept aside by the tide of reformasi, former New Order interests have in fact successfully repositioned within Indonesia's democracy in ways that maintain their social ascendancy. Predominant in virtually all the institutions of governance today, many former New Order officials and hangers-on found that authoritarianism was no longer required for that purpose. They discovered too that they had the resources, material and otherwise, to keep at bay the ‘good governance’technocrats, as well as the people’s movement types who remained so badly organised.


Moreover, the problems that characterise Indonesian politics and society today – such as money politics, corruption, and thuggery – do not suggest any transitional stage to an idealised, liberal form of democracy. They indicate instead the essential dynamics of a way of exercising power that by now has become more or less established, and is likely to remain entrenched into the foreseeable future. Our foreign visitor – who perhaps has travelled around the region and other parts of the world – may recognise aspects of Indonesia’s democracy in places like the Philippines or Thailand, and within the former Soviet empire.

The bad news is that, rather than 'transitioning' to democracy, Indonesia has already arrived at it.

So to answer some of those earlier questions, the main beneficiaries of Indonesian democracy have been, paradoxically, sections of the old New Order elite –– national and local. Benefiting less have been the rest of the Indonesian people, but particularly those who were – like workers – already marginalised anyway in the Suharto era.

Still, it would be wrong to take even this kind of democracy for granted, as on-the-ground activists in Indonesia – no matter how disillusioned – know quite well. At least they can now organise more freely and with less fear of direct repression – though instances of repression certainly still occur. But the opportunity to organise does not mean the ability to organise effectively, which is what is needed to contest power in a serious way. Though it has been ten years, it looks as though the legacy of three decades of civil society disorganisation during the New Order remains difficult to overcome.

While on the subject of legacies – let’s now imagine that our casual but observant visitor happened to be in Indonesia at the right time to have witnessed all the fuss that surrounded the Old Dictator’s death in January 2008. He or she might have also been perplexed by the eulogising and romanticising of the New Order era (do Indonesians really have such short memories?). With newscaster after newscaster waxing lyrical about Suharto’s great achievement of saving the country from the clutches of ‘evil communists’ – while not mentioning the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people – it might even have seemed that the New Order had never gone away.

Could that most anti–democratic of all institutions – the military – be waiting in the wings?

More baffled than ever, this friendly visitor might be enticed to think that Indonesian democracy is just a façade. Or maybe that it is real, but so fragile that authoritarianism can sneak in through the back door at any moment. Our kind-hearted tourist may feel a twinge of concern for Indonesia’s future – and the possibility that the generals will come back at some stage to take away Indonesia’s hard-won, though very faulty, democracy.

In doing so, the visitor is really expressing a fear that persists in some quarters about the possibility of a revival of military-dominated authoritarianism, should Indonesia’s civilian politicians botch things up badly. Could that most anti-democratic of all of Indonesia’s major institutions – the military – be waiting in the wings? Recently, Indonesian military commander General Djoko Santoso gave credence to such fears when he proclaimed that violence taking place during recent local-level elections in Indonesia showed that the country was not ready for democracy. He added that the military had the responsibility to act should national unity and stability become threatened.

A general like Djoko Santoso has an interest in exaggerating matters like this – the level of violence in virtually all the local elections has been in fact quite contained. Despite the sentiments of the general, and of the New Order apologists who reared their heads on TV without shame in January, the good news is that Indonesia has almost certainly gone too far from the heavily centralised authoritarianism of the New Order to slide back into it very easily. The bad news is that, rather than ‘transitioning’ to democracy, Indonesia has already arrived at it. What you see is likely to be what you get for some time to come. And that constitutes the best news of all for those members of the old New Order elite who have suddenly become such committed democrats.     ii

Vedi Hadiz (sochvr@nus.edu.sg ) is associate professor in the Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore. Among many other writings, he is a co-author (with Richard Robison) of Reorganising Power in Indonesia: The Politics of Oligarchy in an Age of Markets ( 2004).

Inside Indonesia 92: Apr-Jun 2008

Latest Articles

Book review: Uncovering Suharto's Cold War


Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

The Jokowi-Luhut alliance


A business alliance forged in 2008 between Joko Widodo and Luhut Pandjaitan formed the basis for a major axis in his presidency

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.