The New Normal: Indonesian Democracy Twenty Years after Suharto

Paige Johnson Tan


When Suharto resigned as Indonesia’s president in May 1998, the path was unsure. Would democratization be allowed to proceed?  Would violence be used to settle differences as it had previously in Indonesia’s history, to bloody effect? Twenty years later, Indonesia is a noisy democracy which has come back from several trips to the knife’s edge. This essay uses Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan’s approach to understanding democratic consolidation to evaluate Indonesia’s democracy twenty years after the overthrow of Suharto. 1 The paper shows that Indonesia has moved toward democratic consolidation in many areas—democracy has become the new normal, but serious challenges remain such as undemocratic civil society organizations, a threatened and in parts unprofessional press, reviled political parties, weaknesses in the rule of law, bureaucratic corruption, and economic inequality. 

Prerequisite: Stateness

 For Linz and Stepan, there is a pre-requisite to democratic consolidation: stateness. Since states experience democracy, without being a state, democracy is a non-starter. So, countries suffering significant separatist challenges struggle to consolidate democracy. As Indonesia democratized in 1998, many wondered whether the country would be able to hold together without an authoritarian strongman to keep the regions in check. Inter-communal violence in Ambon and Poso between Christians and Muslims raised the prospects of wider chaos early in the transition from authoritarian rule. So, too, did the long-running separatist conflict in Aceh. Democratization gave East Timor the opportunity to vote in an UN-supervised referendum on independence. But, as it turned out, despite the horrible violence, these were not harbingers of a wider challenge to Indonesia’s stateness. East Timor departed, but this did not challenge Indonesia existentially due to that territory’s distinct political history (it was invaded only in 1975). Peace deals in Ambon, Poso, and even Aceh calmed conflicts in those areas. Despite serious challenges to its territorial integrity, Indonesia has maintained its stateness.

 Civil Society

Civil society is the arena, independent from the state, in which people organize into groups and associations. Indonesia’s civil society, in particular university students, contributed to the fall of President Suharto in 1998 through months of protests.  After the dictator had fallen, the Indonesian public remained engaged, organizing to support the country’s young democracy. New groups appeared; old organizations acquired new space. Indonesians came together to conduct voter education, monitor elections, promote human rights, and fight corruption. These groups supported new democratic norms.

Other groups formed, however, which did not support Indonesia’s evolving democracy, though they did take advantage of the new freedoms to organize. The Islamic Defenders’ Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) took it upon itself to enforce Islamic strictures, using force and intimidation to target celebrations of Christmas, drinking alcohol, LGBT citizens, and those perceived to be deviant Muslims. Terrorist groups, homegrown and with links to Al Qaeda and then ISIS, have also carried out attacks on targets including hotels, the stock exchange, religious sites, and night markets.

Front Pembela Islam has experienced success with its foray into politics, helping to prevent ethnic Chinese and Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok) from being re-elected in 2017.  FPI and other organizations orchestrated social media campaigns and protests designed to spread the message that non-indigenous non-Muslims should not be permitted to lead Indonesia’s majority Muslims. FPI further demanded Ahok’s prosecution for blasphemy, for which he was eventually sentenced to two years in jail.  While many may disagree with Ahok’s blunt style and neoliberal policies, the FPI’s attack on an Indonesian citizen’s right to hold office simply because of his ethnicity and religion undermined Indonesia’s democracy.

Islamist protests against Basuki Tjahaja Purnamai in Jakarta, 31 March 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Indonesia’s press has exploded in the reform era, allowing a profusion of new voices to be heard.  However, press freedom is still under challenge in the country.  Indonesia ranked 124th of 180 nations in the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index in 2018. 2 Journalists have struggled to report in some areas of the country, especially Papua, West Papua, and Aceh.  Also, reporters experience and fear violence as a result of their reporting, particularly when concerned with conflict areas, religious extremists, and corruption.  Some members of the press are also part of the problem because they charge subjects for positive coverage, fail to fact-check, or display partisanship (many Indonesian politicians own their own media outlets).  “Fake news” is expected to play an important role in upcoming regional and national elections.

Political Society

In addition to civil society, democratic consolidation also occurs in the arena of political society; this is where citizens organize to contest for state power. After Suharto fell, hundreds of new political parties formed. Party and election laws have been refined over time to narrow the number of parties through requiring certain levels of national participation and support. Just 16 parties will be allowed to compete in elections in 2019, along with four parties only in Aceh. The effective number of parties, a measure used to assess parties’ weight in the political system, was 5.1 in 1999 and 8.9 in 2014, 3 so, though the overall number of parties has gone down, the number which matter has actually risen. Levels of support for each party vary from election to election.  Three different parties—Partai Demokrasi Indonesia-Perjuangan, Golkar, and Partai Demokrat—have topped the parliamentary polls in the four elections since Suharto’s fall.  Indonesia’s strong presidency is now directly elected, and only coalitions of a certain level of support may nominate candidates.  Direct presidential elections since 2004 have brought personalistic rather than institutional/party-based candidates to power. 

Suharto’s Indonesia was highly centralized, but in the reform era, politics has been decentralized with greater power and authority available to local and regional levels of government. Likewise, these lower levels have been democratized with direct elections for mayors, regents, and governors.  When the opposition under Gerindra’s Prabowo Subianto tried to un-do direct regional elections in 2014, the attempt was reversed due to public pressure.   

Indonesians’ responses to pollsters show strong support for the country’s democratic elections.  In the International Foundation for Election Systems poll following the 2014 elections, 82% of Indonesians responded that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the voting process in the national parliamentary elections. 4 Problems with elections include the high cost of campaigns (for which elected officials need to get paid back and parties need to scrounge funds), candidates paying for votes, and inaccurate voter rolls. Despite these problems, election turnout remains high four elections in to Indonesia’s democratization (75% in 2014), suggesting strong public engagement. 5

While elections have become a regular piece of Indonesia’s democratic environment, parties have an image problem.  Early in the post-Suharto transition, public opinion poll respondents expressed affinity for one or another of the new political parties.  Today, though, “[c]itizen loyalty toward political parties is trending weak,” according to Saiful Mujani Research Center executive director Djayadi Hanan. 6 Reasons for this public disaffection include ambitious say-anything politicians, eat-at-the-trough-of-power coalition building, flamboyant corruption scandals, and the parties’ failures to build enduring institutions.

Rule of Law

Rule of law is another arena in which democratic consolidation occurs.  For democracy to be consolidated, everyone, including officers of the government, must be equal before the law. Rule of law has improved since the Suharto years when law was “just an ornament,” according to University of Indonesia law professor Hikmahanto Juwana. 7 However, significant problems remain.  The Rule of Law Index finds Indonesia 63rd of 113 countries in rule of law. 8The country’s weakest scores are in criminal justice and corruption.  Judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement are all notoriously corrupt.  According to Hikmahanto, reasons for weaknesses in rule of law are poor pay, weak human resources, and lack of prestige in study of the law. 9

State Bureaucracy

In addition to rule of law, a consolidated democracy also requires an effective state. Who will support the new democracy if it cannot effectively execute its duties? Early in the transition, Indonesia’s state appeared to wobble.  The country faced a kristal, total crisis: political changes, economic crash, communal violence, and terrorist onslaught.  However, Indonesia’s state survived.  Politics painstakingly built a new constitutional system. Elections in 2004 delivered a popular president who was believed able to deliver security, a key state function. The economy climbed from the doldrums of the financial crisis (shrinking 13.8% in 1998) to achieve growth rates of 4-6% annually in the 2000s, increasing public confidence.  Peace agreements were brokered in Ambon and Poso to calm the country’s inter-communal tensions.  Indonesia’s Detachment 88 anti-terrorist squad has successfully hunted and captured terrorists minimizing the threat to the new democracy.  The state has survived the kristal and delivered.

Indonesia’s People’s Representative Council. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The state bureaucracy is, though, highly corrupt.  According to Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, Indonesia ranks 96th of 180 countries. 10  Politicians typically rail against corruption in campaigns but struggle to combat it (if they try at all) when in office. Poor pay means officials believe they need corruption to get by.  Parties need money to fight elections to stay in power, but their only seeming access to funds is through monetizing their control of the state, i.e., corruption.  Presidents need coalitions of parties to advance their agendas, meaning sometimes they must look away from corruption to protect their broader goals.  Corruption has been democratized as power and funds have passed down the political hierarchy to provinces, districts, and municipalities.  It often feels like Indonesia’s Anti-Corruption Commission, deeply respected by Indonesians, is outmatched by its prey.

Economic Society

 Democratic consolidation also happens in the arena of economic society. Democracy requires that all citizens have the economic capacity to influence the political process.  Excessive control of resources by any one entity (the state) or group (oligarchs) could make democratic consolidation problematic.

In Indonesia, high income inequality is the greatest challenge in economic society. The Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, has actually increased over the course of the reform era: from .30 in 2000 to .41 in 2013; 11 this is a significant and surprising fact. A democratization movement meant to spread political power has, at least in the short term, concentrated wealth more unequally.  The political system is loaded with millionaires and even billionaires bankrolling parties or putting themselves up as candidates. The high cost of campaigning in Indonesia’s media-saturated, poll-driven environment makes big money a plus for political candidates. But, an elite-run system is problematic for consolidation of Indonesia’s democracy. 


Using Linz and Stepan’s lens to understand Indonesia’s democratic consolidation over the last twenty years highlights key aspects of the country’s journey.  Democracy has largely become the “only game in town,” the new normal. 12 Indonesia has survived challenges to its stateness, achieving Linz and Stepan’s pre-requisite for democratic consolidation. Civil society has expanded dramatically; press outlets have proliferated.  In political society, elections have become widely accepted, and participation is extensive.  The state has demonstrated effectiveness, particularly in the key areas of nurturing growth and establishing security. 

But, the filter provided by Linz and Stepan’s framework enables us to see areas where consolidation is weak.  Not all civil society organizations take part in the new democratic ethos. Likewise, the press is under threat and parts sometimes unprofessional. The legitimacy of political parties is low, rule of law is weak, and economic inequality has increased since Suharto’s fall. The state bureaucracy remains highly corrupt.  Each of these weaknesses holds in it the possibility of un-doing Indonesia’s democracy if it contributes to delegitimizing the new normal.

Paige Johnson Tan, Ph.D
Department of Political Science
Radford University, USA


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  1. Linz and Stepan 1996.
  2. Reporters without Borders 2018.
  3. These are the author’s calculations based on official election results.
  4. IFES 2014, 1.
  5. Thornley 2014, 7.
  6. Ahmad 2018.
  7. Gantan 2014.
  8. WJP 2018.
  9. Gantan 2014.
  10. Transparency International 2017.
  11. World Bank 2015.
  12. Linz and Stepan 1996, 5.