The 2004 Presidential Elections in Indonesia: Much Ado about Nothing?

By Singh, Bilveer | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2003 | Go to article overview

The 2004 Presidential Elections in Indonesia: Much Ado about Nothing?


Singh, Bilveer, Contemporary Southeast Asia


Is the Baggage of the Past Relevant?

Indonesia's third president, B.J. Habibie, once described the Indonesian Presidency as the most important political office in the country. In October 1998, he opined that, "according to the rules of the game of Indonesian politics, the President is one of the most powerful men in the country and this can be simply too dangerous." (1) The powers of the Indonesian President have been enshrined in the 1945 Constitution providing the Chief Executive with immense responsibilities of being the Head of State, Head of Government, Mandataris of the People's Consultative Assembly and the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. For an Asian state with a rich historical past, the actual powers of the President are written as well as found in unwritten conventions and practices--and not surprisingly, the Indonesian President is more powerful than has been expected. (2) It is due to these immense powers that the contestations surrounding the Presidency have been vitally important due to the immense stakes involved for the political entity, both internally and externally. Until May 1998, Indonesia had only experienced two "presidential successions", both accompanied by great turbulence and loss of lives.

In view of these factors, the issue involving "presidential succession", either through peaceful renewal and a transfer of power or the forcible removal of the incumbent, has always consumed the attention of all stakeholders. In Indonesia, the role of personalities rather than institutions has continued to dominate the dynamics of "presidential succession". In the end, only one person can drive the state car even though there are many who would like to do so. If the car has been seldom used, there will be great uncertainties about its driving capacity notwithstanding how good it looks. If many people died the last time someone got into the car, the tensions, uncertainties and anxieties will be all the greater. Until May 1998, the drivers of the state car, namely, Sukarno and Suharto, had been, in their own ways, greatly burdened with ensuring that the next driver was adequate so that he or she could drive the car without any major mishap. Yet, there are great limitations and difficulties in allowing the incumbent to dictate political and transition the pace of change, particularly when people have become unhappy with the existing regime, as was the case during the tail end of the Sukarno and Suharto periods.

The Post-Suharto Era of Reformasi and Democratization

President Suharto was overwhelmingly re-elected by due process of the then existing political structure for a record seventh term in March 1998. His term was to last for five years. However, due to the rapid contraction of the economy, unleashing of social and political challenges and defections by key political allies, his beleaguered presidency culminated in the resignation of the strongman in favour of his deputy, Vice-President B.J. Habibie. (3) The new president instituted wide-ranging political and constitutional changes that were to define Indonesia's post-Suharto political system. The convening of an Extraordinary Session of the MPR (People's Cosultative Assembly) in November 1998 led to the passage of twelve landmark decrees that marked and legitimized the break from the Suharto era. (4) The general elections in June 1999 and the presidential election in October 1999 emplaced a new group of political leaders that were to oversee Indonesia's transition into a democracy. (5) While evolving into a functioning democracy, political uncertainties and instability have dominated post-Suharto Indonesia: this is most evident in the changes that have affected the helm of the political ladder. While Sukarno and Suharto ruled uninterrupted from August 1945 to March 1998, between March 1998 to the present, the country has experienced a rapid turnover of its presidents: with Suharto from March to May 1998, Habibie from 21 May 1998 to 19 October 1999, Abdurrahman Wahid from 20 October 1999 to 23 July 2001, and Megawati since 23 July 2002, with her term likely to be completed in 2004. …

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