Twenty Years after Suharto


This edition of the Kyoto Southeast Asia Review explores the state of Indonesian politics twenty years after the fall of Suharto’s New Order.  In May of 1998 massive demonstrations rocked the nation and forced Suharto’s resignation to end over 30 years of authoritarian rule.  Observers at the time knew little of what to expect with opinions ranging from the collapse and splintering of Indonesia to the return of military rule to the flourishing of democracy.  What has transpired over the last two decades and the shape of Indonesia’s politics today is the subject that five scholars tackle in the essays below. 

Paige Tan offers a big-picture overview of Indonesia’s political institutions noting that while politics remains noisy and challenged in some areas, democracy is the new normal and unlikely to be subverted despite several trips to the ‘knife’s edge.’  Tan highlights threats to a vibrant free press, weak rule of law and continued corruption among other problems but ultimately argues that democracy is ultimately the only game in town.

Marcus Mietzner narrows the focus to Indonesia’s presidency where he argues that the past two decades have seen a transformation of the office from a perch for authoritarianism to a coalitional system which seeks to balance socio-political forces in Indonesia resulting in a “broad but internally complex alliance.”  A presidency that the post-amendment constitution envisages with strong authority and free from outside interests, he argues, has been sacrificed at the altar of excessive political caution.

KRSEA Suharto 20 years
Suharto, second President of the Republic of Indonesia, at the start of his sixth term

One of the most notable developments after Suharto has been the rise of Islamism in the political sphere.  Alexander Arifianto takes issue with the “Civil Islam’ thesis and argues that the failure to anticipate the rising influence of Islamism has been due to overestimating the appeal of liberal and pluralist Islam, the breakdown of traditional Islamic authority, savvy marketing by religious conservatives and an ‘unholy’ alliance between religious leaders and opportunistic political elites. 

In addition to democratization, Indonesia also implemented a “Big Bang’ decentralization policy immediately after the fall of Suharto.  Despite the promise of a vibrant decentralized democracy, drawing from literature on Latin American politics, Yoes Kenawas discusses the rise of ’subnational authoritarianism’ where dynastic politics plays a critical role in the local political arena.  Coupled with a relatively stable and competitive national electoral system, Kenawas argues that Indonesia demonstrates signs of ‘regime juxtaposition’ where local politicians easily engage in a ‘menu of manipulation.’

Ehito Kimura rounds out the essays by exploring the politics of transitional justice and the extent to which Indonesia has reckoned for the past human rights violations of the authoritarian New Order.  Kimura puts forward a story of both abject failure and stubborn persistence.  Like many states, Indonesia engaged in early transitional justice measures such as fact-finding and institutional reform but opponents have stymied further initiatives such as a truth and reconciliation commission and a national apology.  Advocates have persisted despite these setbacks putting forward bottom-up and unofficial measures to address the past even as they continue to call for official state-led measures as well. 

What is clear twenty years after Suharto is the dynamic and complex nature of democracy as it articulates on the Indonesian polity.  While the country remains arguably the leading democracy in Southeast Asia, this may say more about the region as a whole than about Indonesia itself.  Taken together, the essays above suggest democracy will hold but that dark spots will also remain.  The constellation of social and political forces at the national and local levels illustrate the varied and uneven texture of politics in the world’s fourth most populous country.

Guest Editor Ehito Kimura
Issue 24 Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia
September 2018

Read Issue 24 HERE

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