Indonesia: Transition and Prospects for Democracy

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Democracy in Indonesia:

Transition and Prospects


Indonesia has been classified into the “second”, “third” and even “fourth waves” (Chadwick, 2006) of democracy. Its transition is not clean-cut since there were periods of semi-democracy before the authoritarian rule of Suharto, lasting 32 years. Nevertheless, to simplify matters, I chose to focus on the most recent period of democracy: 1999 onwards.

The first part of this essay explains Indonesia’s transition to democracy in the framework of Huntington’s article “How Countries Democratise” (1991b) in so far as there are similar actors and structures. Huntington (1991b) describes three kinds of transitions; Indonesia’s transition to democracy can be classified as a transplacement (Haryadi, 2002 & Tanuredjo, 2007), although it is not an archetypal case. As for the definition of democracy, there is some debate as to whether Indonesia is fully democratized or still democratizing. I stick to Dahl’s (1978) definition of democracy: civil freedoms, public participation, public contestation, and free and fair elections. The second part of this essay discusses the prospects for democracy from the three perspectives of Linz and Stepan (1996): behavioral, attitudinal and constitutional.

Transition to Democracy: Reformasi

In explaining the transition to democracy I will first provide a brief timeline of Indonesia’s various leaders, from the authoritarian Sukarno and Suharto, liberal authoritarians B J Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid, then to the more democratic Megawati Sukarnoputri and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. I will explain the Indonesia’s transition as compromise between democratic powers and standpatters in the government-controlled hegemonic party Golkar, military and parliament, as well as the effects of non-actor events, such as the 1997 Asian economic crisis. Finally, the extent of democracy will be assessed according to Dahl’s definition given above.


In 1945, nationalist leader Sukarno declared independence, fully recognized only in 1949 after five years of fighting against its former colonial rulers, the Netherlands. Several unsuccessful parliamentary governments collapsed due to the absence of a majority party, during what is now called the “liberal democratic” period in 1950-57 (Neher & Marlay, 1995). This period ended with “Guided Democracy”, Sukarno’s new form of government based on antiquated Indonesian tradition. After an unsuccessful alleged communist coup, Suharto overthrew Sukarno and installed himself as the second president in 1968, proclaiming a “New Order”. Suharto’s authoritarian rule lasted 32 years. Massive political pressure, demands for a total reform (Kusumah, 2001), increasing violence and antagonism between Golkar and opposition groups, and the effects of the 1997-8 economic crisis (Suryadinata, 2001) led to Suharto’s presidential resignation on 21 May 1998, leaving his vice-president Habibie as the interim president. Habibie started some liberal reforms, but he was still associated with the corrupted and authoritarian aspects of the New Order. Indonesia began its transition to democracy with the 1999 parliamentary elections (Chadwick, 2006), when Indonesians elected their legislative representatives to the Assembly of People’s Congress (MPR), who replaced Habibie with their chosen presidential candidate Wahid in an unexpected vote count. Wahid was impeached in 2001 due to suspicions of corruption, and was replaced by his vice-president Megawati. Megawati’s three-year presidency was stable, but she did not address many problems Indonesia was facing, such as poverty and unemployment which were aggrieved by the 1997-8 crisis. The first direct presidential elections took place in 2004, deemed to be free and fair, with retired general Yudhoyono winning a “landslide victory” (New York Times, October 5, 2004) over Megawati. Indonesia is now, as of today, free (Freedom House, 2007).

Transplacement: Actors and Narrative

For practical purposes, I will start by identifying the actors in the transition process, borrowing Huntington’s (1991b) terms for them. Then, on the government side, I will examine how standpatters were weakened, and how the emergence of liberal reformers in government pushed the government towards a compromise on democracy. On the opposition side, I will examine the emergence of democratic moderates who were stronger than the radical extremists. Finally, I will explain Indonesia’s transition by roughly following Huntington’ (1991b) “transplacement dialectic”:

  1. Government liberalization and loss of power and authority
  2. Opposition expands support, hoping to bring down the government
  3. Forceful suppression and containment of opposition power by government
  4. Government and opposition leaders explore negotiation and compromise
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Standpatters in government

During the transition period (or reformasi), the following standpatters were found in government: the military, the hegemonic party Golkar, and Suharto himself. They supported the New Order, but sometimes made liberal concessions in hopes of holding on to power; they adopt the rhetoric and some of the outer trappings of democracy (North et al., 1998), such as elections. Elections were held every five years only to “lend an aura of democratic legitimacy” (Neher & Marlay, 1995) but support always went to Golkar. According to the 1945 Constitution, the president has a very strong executive position. Suharto ...

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