May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Stable but unpopular

Stable but unpopular

Marcus Mietzner

   National Mandate Party (PAN)
   Timur Angin

One of the most important reforms of the post-Suharto period was the creation of a highly dynamic and competitive party system. This was particularly remarkable since Indonesia had not enjoyed democratic party politics for more than forty years. Since the late 1950s, two authoritarian regimes (first Sukarno’s Guided Democracy, then Suharto’s New Order) had tightly controlled and regulated the existence and activities of political parties. Under Suharto, the number of parties had been reduced to three, with the government’s electoral machine Golkar ensured of regular triumphs at the ballot box.

By contrast, the post-1998 party system involves almost no institutional restrictions or government interference. Except for a continuing ban on communist-leaning platforms, parties are largely free to choose their ideological orientation and organisational structure. In addition, all national post-Suharto elections (two parliamentary polls and two rounds of a presidential ballot) have been widely recognised as free and fair. In this liberal climate, parties of all colours and convictions have mushroomed, with 17 of them holding seats in the current parliament and another 95 registered at the Department of Justice and Human Rights.

Yet, ten years after Suharto’s fall, Indonesian political parties are the target of fierce criticism by observers, civil society leaders and the general public. Opinion surveys show that Indonesians view the parties as corrupt, unresponsive, self-absorbed and ineffective. Newspaper columns regularly launch stinging attacks on party leaders, and NGOs have focused many of their programs on scrutinising party activities  – or the lack thereof. At the same time, however, the party system seems surprisingly stable. Despite the constant outpouring of criticism, there have been very few calls for the disbandment of the party-based system, and parties continue to attract large numbers of new members.

Indonesia’s party system is unusually stable among Asia’s emerging democracies.

How can we explain this love-hate relationship between Indonesians and their political parties? This article discusses the reasons for the stability of the Indonesian party system, but also explores why this significant success has not been accompanied by higher levels of public support for the parties among ordinary Indonesians. After evaluating the structural, political and ideological issues associated with the state of Indonesia’s party system, I conclude that, despite ongoing problems, Indonesia’s parties deserve more credit for their contribution to the strength of the democratic polity than is usually extended to them.


The first significant feature of Indonesia’s post-Suharto parties is their relative stability and continuity. All large parties that contested the 1999 elections still exist. They are: the secular-nationalist PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), the former government party Golkar, the traditionalist Muslim party PKB (National Awakening Party), the Islamic PPP (United Development Party), the modernist Muslim party PAN (National Mandate Party), the PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) - a puritan Islamic party that participated in the 1999 polls as PK (Justice Party), and the ultra-modernist Islamic party PBB (Moon and Crescent Party). There has been only one noteworthy addition to this club in the last ten years: President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s PD (Democratic Party), founded in 2001.

This stability of the party system is an unusual phenomenon among Asia’s emerging democracies. Even in more established democratic systems, the lifespan of political parties is often much shorter. For instance, the average life expectancy of political parties in South Korea is three years, while parties in Thailand and the Philippines survive only a little longer. In Indonesia, by contrast, three of the biggest parties were founded in the 1960s and 1970s, with the rest established after Suharto’s fall. Ten years into the post-authoritarian era, there are no signs that any of the larger parties will collapse anytime soon.

The relative longevity of Indonesian parties is due to a mixture of politico-ideological and structural reasons. To begin with, most Indonesian parties are still rooted in distinct social, religious or ideological milieus, and the majority of voters feel reluctant to move between those constituencies. These entrenched divisions in Indonesian society have obstructed the internal modernisation of the mainstream parties, but have also been responsible for their survival. Furthermore, Indonesian law forces parties to establish a nationwide structure down to the sub-district level, strengthening their organisational roots and making it difficult for newcomers to break into the system.

The stability of the national party system is also reflected in the continuously high voter turn-out. In 1999 and 2004, participation in national elections ranged between 75 and 93 percent, a rate that even consolidated democracies would consider healthy. Even in direct elections for local government heads, where the role of the parties is weaker, an average of 69 percent of registered voters took part in the ballots. While these figures are not an endorsement of the party system as such, they indicate that Indonesians believe it is important to express support for the party of their choice.

Another factor in the resilience of Indonesian party politics is the almost complete absence of extremist parties that reject the current democratic system. In contrast to the 1950s, when most parties wanted to remove or substantially alter the system of parliamentary democracy (and replace it with a communist regime, an Islamic state or authoritarian rule), the parties of the post-Suharto era have been strongly supportive of the democratic system. Even the more formalist Muslim parties have suspended their campaign for the introduction of syariah, or Islamic law, after their proposal for a constitutional amendment was voted down by an overwhelming majority in 2002. Since then, their orientation has been largely moderate and centrist, further consolidating the core of the post-authoritarian political system.

… but unpopular

Despite these positive indicators of a healthy and functioning party system, Indonesians have not held back with their criticism of the parties and their leaders. In opinion polls, political parties have invariably ranked among the institutions considered most corrupt, ineffective and unresponsive. Academic observers have echoed this sentiment with their critiques in seminars, newspapers and booklets.

The disappointment of ordinary Indonesians with their parties is reflected in stunning and unambiguous statistics: more than 1000 local legislators, almost ten per cent of the total number of parliamentarians across Indonesia, have been investigated for corruption since 2004. At the same time, more than 75 per cent of Indonesians do not feel a strong sense of emotional attachment to any of the existing parties. In local elections, voters have mostly opted for independent figures with only superficial ties to their nominating parties. In Aceh – the only province where non-party candidates have thus far been allowed to stand – nominees put forward by established parties have suffered a series of crushing defeats.

To be sure, post-Suharto party politics have drawn a large number of rent-seekers, power brokers and opportunists into the centre of Indonesia’s new democracy. This is hardly surprising, given that the political parties today hold much more power than at any other time since the 1950s. Through their parliamentarians, the parties have authority over legislation, and through their participation in government, they dominate the executive as well. These extensive powers are too tempting for political and oligarchic operators to ignore.

The vicious cycle of political corruption has been aggravated by populist attitudes in Indonesian society and among some NGOs.

However, the problems of Indonesian party politics are not only about the failing morals of politicians. Structural deficiencies and unrealistic societal expectations also play a role. Most importantly, Indonesia has no coherent system of party financing in place. The vast majority of party members pay no membership fees; the small state subsidies to parties were cut by almost 90 per cent in 2005; and contributions to parties by entrepreneurs are typically slammed by the media and civil society groups. Accordingly, party boards force their representatives in legislative institutions and national and local government positions to come up with the money needed to run their organisations. Squeezed by their parties, parliamentarians subsequently turn to corruption and rent-seeking to raise fresh funds.

This vicious cycle of political corruption has been aggravated by the populist attitudes in Indonesian society and some NGO circles. In recent years, political commentators have decried every attempt by political parties to obtain monetary or institutional resources from the state. In 2007, even the planned acquisition of fax machines and laptops for members of the national parliament created a huge uproar. Similarly, it took ten years of post-Suharto reforms for each national legislator to be allocated a single research assistant. While these anti-party critics can be certain of thunderous applause from the public, they rarely come forward with alternative ideas about how to provide proper and transparent funding mechanisms for Indonesia’s parties.

Ultimately, the problem of corruption in Indonesian political parties can’t be solved without ground-breaking reforms of the party financing system. It would be naïve to believe that parties can simultaneously engage in fund-raising activities, stay away from corrupt practices and be effective vehicles of political representation and aggregation. In the absence of membership contributions and public funding, Indonesia’s parties have so far been forced to concentrate on raising money instead of performing their functions. Indonesian observers and the general public should acknowledge this issue as an institutional defect. In addition, they should recognise that for all their faults, the parties have played a significant role in stabilising the post-authoritarian political system.     ii

Marcus Mietzner ( ) is a Visiting Research Fellow at KITLV in Leiden. His book on the Indonesian military will shortly be published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. He is currently writing a new book on political parties in Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 92: Apr-Jun 2008

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