Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Democratic Transition and Political Development in Post-Soeharto Indonesia

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Democratic Transition and Political Development in Post-Soeharto Indonesia

Article excerpt

Introduction: The Difficult Path towards Democratization

Indonesia is in a historic period of transition from authoritarian governance to laying the foundation for constitutional liberalism and a democratic political structure. The experiment has brought both ecstasy and agony for the people of Indonesia. On the one hand, the transition has opened up unprecedented freedom, giving them for the first time a choice to elect their own leaders and the liberty to organize themselves in the way they prefer. On the other, the removal of the lid on politics has opened up a Pandora's box, fomented ethnic and religious conflicts, and even encouraged regional separatism, thereby creating political and economic uncertainties. The spread of democracy in Indonesia has by no means eradicated all forms of political repression or conflict, but it has tremendously increased the number of people who enjoy freedom, and fostered hope that the bitterness of the Soeharto era and the old restrictive political practices would not be repeated. Since many of those wishes and expectations have not been fulfilled--particularly with regard to the declining purchasing power of ordinary Indonesians, the dimming prospect of the economic recovery, and law and order-the transition has also brought a desire for stability and a nostalgia for some for the more predictable days of Soeharto.

Indonesia's record of creating the basis for a democratic structure in six years is not insignificant if one takes into account two presidential changes and the possibility of another one in the coming direct presidential election in July; two fair national parliamentary and provincial elections, a revived multi-party system; restored freedom of speech and association together with the emergence of a vibrant press; an amended constitution; the creation of independent statutory bodies to oversee the activities of state machinery; the separation of powers between the executive, legislature, and the judiciary; and finally a reduced political role for the armed forces, (Tentera Nasional Indonesia, TNI) in the general affairs of the country. Yet many are frustrated that the process of reform and democratization of governance has been limited and too slow to sustain people's patience and faith in democracy. Corruption in public life and arbitrariness on the part of the government are still common. (1) There is a lack of sincerity in pursuing old corruption cases and Soeharto has not been brought to court as yet for his alleged involvement in a number of graft cases. (2) There is no visible improvement in the economic conditions of the people in the street. Ethnic, religious and sectarian violence has not shown any signs of ebbing; on the contrary, centrifugal and violent forces are on the rise, the latest being the resumption of killings in Ambon.

Going by Indonesian standards, past and present, to be fair, Megawati's performance was not unimpressive, as hers was a relatively stable government pursuing a consistent set of economic and political policies throughout its term of office, but these policies, to quote a perceptive analyst of the Indonesian political and economic scene,

   [...] resulted in socio-economic instability in the lives of
   ordinary, people: Employment uncertainty, price uncertainty,
   uncertainty of access to medicines and hospitals and to higher
   and vocational education. At the present time, the causes of
   these uncertainties are not perceived to be the absence of a
   'strong man' but of the prevalence of culture of self-enrichment,
   and of rivalry power and resources, among the old parties. (3)

The outcome of the April elections was a hung parliament with none of the major parties receiving a mandate from the people to rule the country. Although Golkar has emerged as the number one party in terms of its parliamentary strength, its percentage of the vote has decreased, however insignificant that percentage might be. …

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