Indonesia: A Country in Flux

Report on the 1999 elections and their place in Indonesian history.

All eyes are looking at Indonesia as she voyages into the unknown, from a tightly-controlled authoritarian state under Presidents Sukarno and Suharto to one gleaming with the promise of greater political freedom. Indeed, the June 7 elections have brought fresh hope to Indonesia, the country experiencing her first free elections in 44 years. With the final voting figures at last in the open, it might seem that Indonesia’s political transition has finally come to an end. However, the process has instead resulted in a political stalemate, with Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party-Perjuangan (Struggle), or PDI-P, winning 33.7% of the votes, and President B.J. Habibie’s Golkar Party coming in second with 22.4 %.

What is in store for this fragile archipelago nation; one that is facing uncertainty and violence in the wake of a critical pro-independence vote in East Timor, a vote which had sealed the territory’s determination to detach itself from Jakarta? In the most probable instance, analysts have predicted a coalition government as no one party has won sufficient seats to command a parliamentary majority; what remains uncertain is who would take over the reins of the all-important presidential position.

In the opinion of one political analyst, Dr Ariel Heryanto of the National University of Singapore, most Indonesians are not overly concerned about who sits in Jakarta’s Presidential Palace. He feels that Indonesians are more concerned about being left alone; about having a certain sense of sovereignty and being involved in decision-making regarding their local state of affairs. Dr Heryanto, who is a Senior Lecturer at the NUS Southeast Asian Studies Department, told The Ridge that political players like Ms Megawati or Dr Habibie are not "radically" different from each other, but only appear so because of how the media portrays them.

Dr Heryanto is however of the opinion that the June 7 elections have been a triumph for the people of Indonesia. But their impact cannot be overvalued. This is because most major political decisions in Jakarta are not made within the said political perimeters, but are often decided behind close doors or in the streets. As such, the elections themselves do not indicate a victory in overcoming a post-authoritarian political system.

How then have the elections changed the face of such a political system? Take for instance the Indonesian military, which remains a crucial force in the country, controlling an automatic 38 seats of Parliament's 500 seats, and continuing to share power with the democratically-elected parliamentary representatives. There has also been talk that Military Chief General Wiranto might take the position of Vice-President. In the light of these developments, what then is the role of the Indonesian armed forces?

In the opinion of Dr Heryanto, Indonesia is still in the midst of a political transition. As such, there is likely to be a military presence in politics for the next couple of years. However, as in the case of Taiwan, Philippines and certain Latin American countries, a process of demilitarisation is likely to occur. Dr Heryanto predicts that such residual military power would only remain within the next 5 years, with societies in Southeast Asia generally experiencing the rise of civil society and a decline in the governmental spheres of influence.

Turning to East Timor, Dr Heryanto noted that the province had undergone many years of suffering, and is now eager for any opportunity to distance itself from the Jakarta authorities. However, no spillover effect is likely to occur for the other Indonesian provinces. This is especially since Dr Heryanto pinpoints deeper reasons underlining a territory’s push for independence, which requires more than passion or strong emotions.

In what direction then is Indonesia headed, and how will this middle power affect the other countries in Southeast Asia? In the view of Dr Heryanto, the current state of affairs is likely to prevail for at least 3 years. This is as it takes time for a new political system to evolve after the collapse of an older and more established, but rigid system. Heartening changes have so far been made, such as in press freedom, in the justice system, as well as in the way people have more power to speak. But serious problems remain, for example in the economy, administration and security of the country. The rigid bureaucracy is also one of the main problems that has to be changed in order for the system to improve. Dr Heryanto notes that such a problem is a weakness of the residual political culture, which would take many years to alter, in a similar manner to other countries like the Philippines. There is however optimism that things will change for the better, with economic growth slow but on the increase.

Perhaps it is still too early to determine the state of affairs in Southeast Asia’s maritime giant. In a country that has seen many changes in such a short period of time, one can only expect more such transitions even beyond the November Presidential Elections. What remains certain is that the Sukarno-Suharto era has been relegated to the annals of history and what happens next is a Pandora’s Box, which will keep everyone concerned in suspense for a long time to come.

The above article was written by Mark Lim Shan-Loong on 24th August 1999 and appeared in The Ridge (99/00 Issue 2) , a publication of the National University of Singapore Students' Union. It was later revised on the 8th September 1999 to reflect the political changes in East Timor.


Diary of a Country

Date Situation in Indonesia
Jan/Feb economic crisis-driven food riots leading to ethnic tension
March 11 Suharto sworn in for a 7th 5-year term; appeals for national unity
May 12 6 students killed when police opened fire on one of the largest demonstrations in recent years
May 14 total anarchy after a day of uncontrolled rioting
May 20 student gathering at parliament pressing for peaceful and constitutional reforms
May 21 Suharto steps down; end of an era in Indonesian politics; Habibie sworn in
May 23 Habibie promises fresh elections with greater political freedom
June 7 Indonesia’s first free elections since 1955, with 48 political parties taking part
July 16 Final election vote count released with Megawati’s PDI-P proclaimed the victor and the ruling Golkar Party in second place
Aug 30 East Timor goes to the polls to determine its independence
Sep 4 Political independence for East Timor with an overwhelming 78.5% of the voters opting for independence; violence by pro-integration militia increase prospects for a civil war


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