Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Roots of democracy

Roots of democracy

Andreas Ufen

   National Awakening Party (PKB)
   Timur Angin

Indonesia is today the most democratic country in Southeast Asia, at least according to Freedom House ratings. In the Philippines, the political situation is as volatile as ever. The toppling of President Estrada in 2001, the state of emergency in February 2006, successive impeachment bids against President Arroyo, and coup attempts by the military show how fragile the political system remains. In Thailand, the military coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006, the dissolution of parliament and the ensuing collapse of the party system suggest a similar political frailty. Arguably, one explanation for these differences in political outcomes is the quality of the political parties in Idonesia, when compared to those in the Philippines and Thailand. This article first compares the patterns of party competition in the three countries today, then traces those patterns to different long term social and political trajectories.

The idea that Indonesian political parties contribute more to democratisation than those in the Philippines and Thailand sounds unconvincing at first. The list of complaints about Indonesian parties is long. Many of them are dominated by charismatic, authoritarian leaders. Factionalism is a recurrent problem. Political platforms are generally poor. ‘Money politics’ is everywhere – candidacies are bought, legislators act as brokers for private companies, businesspeople take over party chairs, and billionaire financiers determine policies behind the scenes. The financing of parties in general is dubious. Many of them rely for campaigning funds on donors who are unknown to the public, and regulations to control these external cash flows are seldom enforced. In recent years some businesspeople have even become party chiefs. For example, Jusuf Kalla heads the Golkar party, while Sutrisno Bachir is the chairperson of PAN, the National Mandate Party. The state of Indonesian political parties is deplorable. But the party system is still much more stable than in the Philippines and Thailand.


The pattern of party competition in Indonesia is relatively stable, and the reason is that some of the biggest parties are to a certain extent rooted in society. Thus, the results of the 1999 and 2004 elections resemble those of 1955. Today, PAN, PKS (Prosperous Justice Party), and PBB (Crescent and Star Party), among others, have constituencies comparable to that of the Masyumi (Consultative Council of Indonesian Muslims), the largest modernist Islamic party in the 1950s. The PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle) is often considered to be the successor of the Sukarno-era PNI (Indonesian Nationalist Party). The PKB (National Awakening Party) originated directly from the Islamic organisation Nahdatul Ulama, which dates back to 1926. The public still thinks of the parties as representing specific streams (aliran) or social and religious milieus. This social ballast gives Indonesian party alternatives a heritage and a continuity that reaches back to the 1950s.

There is a continuity among party alternatives reaching back to the 1950s

In contrast, Thai parties are organisationally and programmatically weak. They represent social cleavages in only rudimentary ways. People vote for influential leaders, not for parties or their representatives. A number of parties that seemed to be well established have quickly disappeared. Examples include Palang Dharma, the Social Action Party, the Thai Citizen Party, and, more recently, the Chart Pattana Party and the New Aspiration Party. Before Thaksin, the party system was fluid, but under him, alternatives vanished almost completely. With his new party, Thai Rak Thai (‘Thais Love Thais’, TRT), the media mogul and billionaire won 248 out of 500 seats in the House of Representatives in the January 2001 polls. He later took over a range of smaller parties.

The weakness of the party system became even clearer in 2006, when the military toppled Thaksin amidst mass demonstrations. Elections which had earlier been boycotted by the opposition parties were then annulled by the Constitutional Court. The court also ordered the dissolution of the TRT. Under martial law, parties had to start from scratch. However, the TRT reincarnated itself as the People’s Power Party (PPP) and returned to power in elections in December 2007.

In the Philippines, frequent party-switching as well as numerous party dissolutions and rebirths are also typical. The post-1986 party system is quite unlike that of the pre-Marcos period, and it has shifted continuously since then. It does not mirror major social cleavages. Religion, for instance, is at best represented only indirectly by the political parties. Alliances with religious and ideologically oriented groups are often forged merely for a short time. Scores of parties with similar but meaningless names compete in a highly complex election system every three years. Most of them are founded by presidential candidates. They are under the control of a few dozen old dynasties, carrying the names of Aquino, Cojuangco, Osmeña, Romualdez, Marcos, Lopez, Enrile, etc. Some professionals, TV, movie and sport stars make up the rest of the political class. Family networks thus often displace parties as channels of political recruitment. The concept of voting for a party – and not just for politicians – is still fairly uncommon. Even the notion of party government is generally absent.


In obvious contrast to the Philippines and Thailand, the Indonesian party system is far more stable. In Indonesia, the first political parties and mass organisations arose long before independence. Some of them were highly politicised, most were anti-colonial, socially entrenched, and capable of mobilising large parts of the population. This led to the crystallisation of a party system with relatively stable patterns of competition after independence. The same did not happen in Thailand, which was never colonised. Unimpeded by colonial rulers, the national elite was able to retain its power through a ‘bureaucratic polity’. They staved off extrabureaucratic forces such as political parties for a long time. In the Philippines, the fluidity of the party system today stems from the early political predominance of families or clans. Their wealth and power was based on large plantations (haciendas). Later, many of them skillfully transferred their money into urban financial and industrial resources. But they managed to retain their hold over the political parties.

In Indonesia, the first political parties and mass organisations arose long before independence 

In a different way, local elites are another factor in party rootedness. In Indonesia, local elites remain fractured and relatively weak. This helps the party system. So far, local mafias have been subordinate to national state and party apparatuses. The reason is that Suharto’s New Order regime was extremely centralised. Moreover, Indonesia does not have a strong, locally based bourgeoisie, as in the Philippines. In the Philippines, economic elites have been able to dominate parties since their inception; in Indonesia politicians with lower- and middle-class backgrounds have more often risen through the ranks of party organisations. In Thailand, strong local elites arose in the 1980s, along with a semi-democracy holding competitive elections. The Thai local elites dominated multi-member constituencies and were thus able to take control of factions, parties, and ministries in Bangkok in fluid coalition governments. Although Thaksin was able to keep these local elites on a short leash, his de facto one-party rule prevented the stabilisation of the party system.

The political economy of political parties is also more benign in Indonesia than in the other two countries. At the national level, unstable, clientelist parties typically develop out of a close symbiosis between business and the political class. In Indonesia in the 1950s, Dutch companies controlled most capital-intensive sections of the economy. The ethnic Chinese and indigenous (pribumi) businesspersons were too weak to exercise much influence on governments. The latter arose as a powerful class only in the New Order. They are now increasingly able to influence political parties. Yet, this form of collusion and close cooperation is still not fully developed, whereas it has been typical of the Philippines from the beginning, and of Thailand at least since the 1980s and especially so with the meteoric rise of billionaire Thaksin.

Parties can bridge the divide between elites and society, and they can mediate between different elite factions. A competitive system of rooted parties, unhindered by powerful actors such as the military who can veto their decisions, is thus a major precondition for democratic consolidation. The social rootedness of political parties in Indonesia makes it less likely that authoritarianism will come back here than in the Philippines or Thailand. Nevertheless, not all the signs in Indonesia are positive. Parties are becoming less aligned with fundamental social forces. Strong local elites are beginning to emerge. Both developments are dangerous for democracy. If these trends continue, electoral democracy may become more fragile and prone to crisis or even sudden breakdown.     ii

Andreas Ufen (ufen@giga-hamburg.de ) is a researcher at GIGA, the Global Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg (http://www.giga-hamburg.de ). He co-edited the volume Democratization in Post-Suharto Indonesia (Routledge, in press).

Inside Indonesia 92: Apr-Jun 2008

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