End of the Jakartan empire?

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Wahid's presidency may herald the end of Indonesia as we know it.

Michael van Langenberg

The Jakarta Post on November 10 editorialised as follows:

The central government must do away with its obsession with national unity and start giving real autonomy to the regions. The government must not offer half-hearted measures if it wants to spare this nation from disintegrating. Barring complete separation, the ultimate form of autonomy is federalism.... Ultimately, the real threat to disintegration.... comes from Jakarta.

The New Order regime from its inception in 1966 constructed a state-system in which two factors predominated. First was an idealised nation conceived in the official motto of 'Unity in Diversity' (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika). Second were notions of an 'integralistic' state resting on 'family' principles, designed to protect an archipelaegic unity (wawasan nusantara). From its very beginning in 1945 there has been a crucial contradiction in the Indonesian state-system between ideal legal principles of regional autonomy, and the reality of an increasingly centralised national state.

The collapse of the Suharto presidency in 1998 may mark the end of a century-long process of bureaucratic centralism in state building. That process began with the consolidation of the imperial state of the Netherlands Indies at the turn of the 20th century. In its later stage, Suharto's presidency came to resemble the imperial governor-generalships, supplemented with resonances of pre-colonial divine kingship. Suharto's presidency ended amid a massive loss of popular legitimacy. National government itself was perceived widely as corrupt and nepotistic, responsible for abuses by the military, greedily appropriating regional resources, and culturally arrogant.

In the past decade, coherent independence movements emerged in several territories of the state. East Timor is now on the road to full independence. Aceh seems destined to achieve either independence or some kind of special 'federalist' relationship with Jakarta in the immediate future. Irian Jaya has just been divided into three provinces, creating increased local resentment against what is perceived as a further example of Jakartan imperialism. Increasingly coherent movements for regional 'autonomy' are now also active in the Moluccas (in two areas), Sulawesi (more than one!), Riau, West and East Kalimantan, West Sumatra, and Bali.


How will the new government headed by President Abdurrahman Wahid deal with these movements? Executive government is vastly weaker than a decade earlier. The legislature is now more powerful and more legitimate than at any time since the mid-1950s. It has successfully restricted presidential incumbency to two five-year terms, and made the president answerable to parliament once a year. The chairman of the Peoples' Consultative Assembly (MPR), Amien Rais, is a prominent advocate of a federalist state. Popular legitimacy of the internal security functions and political role of the military is now lower than at any time in the history of independent Indonesia. The ruling oligarchy of the New Order no longer dominates the economy to the extent it did prior to the economic crisis of 1997-98. Conditions are ripe for a significant dispersal of power within the Jakartan empire.

Supporters of Wahid and vice-president Megawati Sukarnoputri present their political partnership as an integrating leadership 'duality' (dwitunggal), echoing that of Indonesia's two independence 'proklamator's Sukarno and Hatta. Like them, Wahid and Megawati reflect a partnership of Islamic identity and secularist orientation. Similar echoes of the earlier dwitunggal are heard in Wahid's stated preference for a federalist Indonesia, while Megawati has emphasised commitment to her father's vision of a centralised unitary state. However, unlike the symbolic regional duality of Java/Bali and Sumatra/'outer islands' of the Sukarno-Hatta dwitunggal, Wahid and Megawati constitute an emphatically Javanese variant of national political culture.

The new cabinet has been designated the Cabinet of National Unity. In reality it is a cabinet of compromise and coalition building. It brings together conflicting political forces - rural Javanese Islam, modernising reformist Islam, secularist nationalism, federalists, unitarists, military professionals, internationalists, protectionists, liberal democrats. It reflects the broad coalition that Wahid built within the MPR in October to gain the presidency. In a sense this was less a coalition to ensure that Wahid became president than to ensure that Megawati did not. Once the Wahid-Megawati dwitunggal was in place, the cabinet had to accommodate the wide range of interests behind it. These negotiations saw the cabinet increase from Wahid's initially intended 25 to an eventual 35 portfolios. Policy coherence might prove impossible. Executive government instability is a distinct likelihood.

Alongside 'reformasi', 'referendum' has entered the dominant national discourse. The former emphasises a new era of 'moral' politics, with national leaders seeking popular legitimacy as a matter of priority. The latter discourse, on display most vocally in East Timor and Aceh, has placed the debate about federalism and secessionism at centre stage. The 'Jakartan empire' is facing far-reaching structural change.

Michael van Langenberg (mvl@asia.usyd.edu.au) is a private consultant and researcher on contemporary Indonesia and Southeast Asia, and fractional employee in the School of Asian Studies, University of Sydney.

Inside Indonesia 61: Jan - Mar 2000