Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Anti-Party Reaction in Indonesia: Causes and Implications

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Anti-Party Reaction in Indonesia: Causes and Implications

Article excerpt


Facing impeachment in 2001, Abdurrahman Wahid bemoaned that, all other avenues exhausted in an attempt to save his presidency, he was "lodging a protest with God" against the injustice with which he had been treated. (1) For Abdurrahman Wahid, it was not his performance in office or his sidelining of other political tendencies in Indonesia, but rather the vicious and unbounded ambition of his opponents which was motivating the attempt to remove him from office. Even though impeachment could be seen as having been effective in removing a leader who was widely perceived to be ineffective, the months of chaos and the willingness of political party leaders to take the country to the brink of violent inter-communal conflict over the issue seemed to turn many Indonesians off, potentially undermining the legitimacy of Indonesia's post-Soeharto political system.

This article contends that in the short period of time since Soeharto's fall in May 1998, admittedly under trying political and economic circumstances both domestically and internationally, Indonesia's political parties have spent much of the goodwill bestowed on them by the population as the proper organizing principle for a post-Soeharto political system; this has led to a significant anti-party reaction. The parties are strongly embedded in the contemporary political system, but this very strength has enabled them to operate in ways that are alienating the population. With parties and elections being the most overt feature of Indonesia's evolving democratic system, delegitimation of the parties presents challenges for the consolidation of democracy in the country.

It is common in Indonesian political discourse for parties to be derided as power-hungry, selfish, and corrupt. Commentators, intellectuals, and even party politicians themselves often lament that the country is experiencing a "crisis of leadership" or a "moral crisis". The article begins by exploring the reaction against the parties currently under way in Indonesia. It then explains the reasons for the anti-party backlash by examining the legacy of anti-party attitudes bequeathed by earlier periods in Indonesian political life, the parties' behaviour since the 1999 elections, the strength of the parties in the contemporary politico-legal framework, and popular attitudes towards the parties as revealed in a succession of opinion polls conducted over the course of the transition. Finally, the article concludes by considering the implications of the anti-party reaction for the consolidation of democracy.

The Anti-Party Reaction

Since Soeharto's fall in 1998, many opinion leaders and even members of the general public have been uncomfortable with the sheer number of parties that have arisen in Indonesia. More than two hundred parties were formed in the period 1998-99. Forty-eight parties qualified to compete in the 1999 elections. Twenty-one of those parties achieved representation in Parliament. Frustration has also been expressed with the charismatic basis of the parties. Rather than representing programmes or coalitions of interests, the parties were derided as relying solely on the personal charisma of a leading individual, such as Megawati Soekarnoputri, for the election's top finisher, the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia--Perjuangan (PDI-P). Furthermore, the basing of many of the parties in the country's socia-religious groupings seemed to heighten the potential for inter-party rivalry to breach the bounds of rule-based, institutionalized competition. The way in which the impeachment battle in 2001 seemed to turn into a proxy war be tween the country's modernist and traditionalist Muslims seemed to confirm the worst fears of inter-party, inter-communal violence.

Four years into the transition, the reaction against the new parties is in full swing; this can be seen in a selection of important episodes beginning in about 2001. …

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