Gus Dur's Indonesia - One Year On?

A look into the Presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid & his first year in office.

On the 21st of October 1999, the world baited its breath as prominent Indonesian cleric Abdurrahman Wahid ascended his country’s presidency, bringing with him some semblance of stability to the riot-torn nation of Indonesia. President Wahid’s rise to power marked a significant shift in the Indonesian political process, overseeing a gradual change from the autocracy of the Sukarno-Suharto eras to a political government largely characterised by democracy. However, within a year of the Indonesian leader’s ascension to power, the stability of the country has remained uncertain. This can especially be seen in the recent bombings of prominent locations such as the Jakarta Stock Exchange. In addition, pressing issues remain unsolved, for instance the separatist tendencies of provinces like Aceh, as well as the continuing uncertainty of the economic situation. As one political analyst remarked, the initial optimism of the Wahid Presidency has so far been an expression of the “wishful thinking” of a people eager for change and stability in their daily lives. Associate Professor Leo Suryadinata, in expressing such a view, noted that President Wahid, or Gus Dur as he is popularly known, had faced tremendous obstacles in his quest to bring stability to the country. However, because of the difficult circumstances governing his rule, it is unlikely for Gus Dur to do much more in today’s situation.

In an interview with The Ridge, Professor Suryadinata, who is from the Political Science Department of the National University of Singapore, noted that the problems facing Indonesia today stem from a vicious cycle linking political instability with the economic problems of the country. Although the Indonesian government has been upbeat about the economic health of the country, Professor Suryadinata remains sceptical about a rapid economic recovery. This is despite Chief Economic Minister Razal Ramli’s recent announcement of a 10-point programme for economic recovery to boost investor confidence. In the opinion of the NUS associate professor, economic problems arise because of the legacy of Suharto's 32-year rule, which include inherent weaknesses in the bureaucracy, leading to poor economic management and also to corruption. This in turn results in poverty among the people, who then become vocal about their financial problems, affecting the political stability of the country through riots and violent actions, thereby reducing investor confidence and incurring further economic problems. Therefore, if the Indonesian government wants to spearhead a serious effort to put an end to the country’s economic woes, a key aspect of such a programme will be to reform the rigid bureaucracy.

When The Ridge interviewed political analyst Ariel Heryanto after last year’s June elections, Dr Heryanto commented that a major weakness of the Indonesian political system lay in its residual political culture. Dr Heryanto, then a Senior Lecturer of the Southeast Asian Studies Programme in NUS, noted that the rigid bureaucracy was part of this residual political culture that was a relic of the Sukarno-Suharto era. Sharing Dr Heryanto’s views, Professor Suryadinata remarked that an intact bureaucracy implied that the old forces of the previous era had not been removed completely, and these forces served as a significant obstacle towards the political re-ordering of the country. Similarly, the military remains a potent force in Indonesian politics, despite the civilian supremacy measures attempted by Gus Dur, such as the installation of non-military figures as Defence Ministers and the removal of powerful military chief General Wiranto from the political scene. Despite such attempts to curb the military’s role in Indonesian politics, Professor Suryadinata notes that it is still important that military personnel remain to keep the balance of power, especially in their crucial role of maintaining the integrity of Indonesia in the face of growing separatist tensions. 

Considering the numerous problems faced by the Indonesian government, one question that could be asked is why Gus Dur has been able to remain in power despite the occurrence of such problems. Addressing this issue, Professor Suryadinata commented that the Muslim cleric’s appointment as President was widely accepted by all, especially since he was legitimately elected as a compromise candidate in the 1999 elections.  Moreover, there is the idea that because there is no clear successor to the Indonesian Presidency, the removal of Gus Dur would plunge the country into yet another political crisis, further delaying its return to pre-crisis standards of living. In addition, because Gus Dur has been perceived to be a weak leader, there is also the belief that he is easy to manipulate due to his need to compromise so as to maintain the political harmony needed in such a precarious political situation. Indeed the numerous cabinet reshuffles have been an attempt by Gus Dur to consolidate his grip on power, but it remains uncertain if the Indonesian leader has been able to improve his position significantly through these cabinet changes.

If one is to examine the political record of the Abdurrahman Wahid Presidency, one can easily remark that the changes made so far have been significantly lacking when compared to the optimism expressed when Gus Dur ascended the presidency. However, it might also be important to understand that for things to change in Indonesia, deep fundamental issues have to be resolved by the polity and by the Indonesian people. Consequently, one year is too short to judge the achievements of any one Indonesian leader, much less for one to predict what will be the effect that Indonesia’s fourth president will have on his country.

 The above article was written by Mark Lim Shan-Loong on 17th October 2000 and appeared in The Ridge (00/01 Issue 2), a publication of the National University of Singapore Students' Union. 

Comments? Email to share your thoughts.




The Writing Page