Succession

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Succession


The presidential succession will be a crucial event for several reasons. First, it will be only the second succession since 1945. The first succession was the result of a "disguised coup"1 and although there are constitutional and procedural rules for presidential succession, they have never been tested and the overarching power of the incumbent allows ample scope for manipulation of the process.

Secondly, removing the dominating influence of President Soeharto will expose the role of the Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI) in society and reignite debate both within ABRI and among the public about ABRI's political role and how it is to be exercised. Soeharto, especially in recent years, has effectively, but perhaps temporarily, neutered ABRI as a political actor and has bent it to his own needs as the backbone of his regime. The questions to be answered are: Will ABRI re-emerge as a powerful national political force in its own right, will it form part of an élite coalition, or will it withdraw from politics altogether? Of more immediate interest, does it have sufficient residual political integrity to play a role in the succession by, for example, convincing Soeharto that it is time for him to hand the baton to another?

Thirdly, the succession will not be a simple matter of changing the leader of a viable regime as might have occurred had Soeharto stepped down in the 1980s. His succession will open up broader questions relating to political structures and norms appropriate to Indonesia in the twenty-first century and the global environment in which it must coexist and compete.

The immediate question for the Indonesian élite is whether they allow Soeharto to dictate the timing of his succession and to choose his successor. The events of 1996 seemed to signal the beginning of the end of his reign. The year was marked by: questionable economic decisions which favoured his family and ran counter to the general trend of economic policy; a major scandal in the Supreme Court exposing collusive practices and discrediting the judiciary more generally; and his inept manipulation of the internal affairs of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) and its aftermath. There were also several sporadic social disturbances in the lead-up to the May 1997 parliamentary elections which indicated growing frustration with some aspects of development and the absence of genuine political outlets for these frustrations. Golkar's sweeping election victory seemed to relegate these concerns to frustrated minorities and to herald the unopposed election of Soeharto for a seventh five-year term in March 1998. However, the euphoria of Golkar's election victory was soon overshadowed by the economic crisis that followed and a re-opening of the succession issue.

If significant elements of the élite conclude that Soeharto's time is up, how can they organize succession? Many members of the élite have long thought that succession is overdue but they have not acted because of Soeharto's overwhelming powers of patronage and coercion. Even when it is obvious that his time is nigh he is still a dangerous man to cross. Consequently, those who would like to see him go have three broad options. First, they could adopt a direct approach by mustering sufficient support from the élite to make it plain that the presidential elections of March 1998 could be contested, puncturing his proprietorial image. Secondly, they could adopt an indirect approach. This might take the form of heaping praise on Soeharto's achievements and encouraging him to retire with dignity or of encouraging a national campaign in support of renewal which conveyed the same message in a different form. Thirdly, they could combine both approaches or take advantage of societal mobilization by other political forces to achieve the same effect. …

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