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Civil Society > Big Democracies at the Crossroads

‘Potemkin’ democracy?
Not so Republic of Indonesia

By Theodore Friend

Electoral democracy may be merely a rabies with which America has infected the world by its historical bite. But the largest direct presidential election in history is promising. It will have concluded seven weeks before the Bush-Kerry tangle in November. Because Indonesian voters turn out in much greater proportions than do Americans, their population of 230 million has been casting far more ballots than will the 280 million in the United States.

This in itself should be major international news. But American media, including public TV, are asleep again. Indonesia’s massive Muslim population, its oil, its terrorism, its vigorous new democracy, apparently do not matter compared to our gas pump prices, our threatened travel and shopping, our publicly contesting personalities.

A pity, with so much of interest in the run-up to Indonesia’s run-off. In April, the largest one-day parliamentary election in world history (because India’s takes much longer) produced a new party configuration. Explicit clean government platforms scored strongly; platforms for an Islamic state fared poorly. And sharp decline of support for incumbent president Megawati Sukarnoputri became evident.

Since the euphoric days of deposing Suharto and his Golkar party, 1998-1999, reform has been sluggish. Nonetheless: for a nation conceived in anarchy and dedicated to a number of contradictory propositions, many of them authoritarian, the last six years may be summed up as still hopeful. Constitutional reform has been astute and persistent.

The largest (again) world experiment in decentralization of government is in process and individual voters are showing an autonomy and pride in choice beyond prediction or seduction. Serious weaknesses nonetheless remain in the rate of economic growth needed to reduce poverty, and in the legal environment required for transparent and creative business. Gross defects persist in the military, upon which this review will concentrate.

Megawati’s half-presidency (it is three years since she replaced Abdurrahman Wahid after his impeachment) has been regrettably sluggish, without social vision or economic consistency. She has conveyed her father, Sukarno’s, ambition for unity, and his successor Suharto’s ruthless way of ensuring it. The Indonesian National Army (TNI) continues relentlessly bent on crushing separatist movements in Aceh and Papua (in Indonesia’s far west and far east, respectively). Their success in winning hearts and minds in putting down the Darul Islam revolt (1948-1962) is forgotten, and too many officers behave instead as territorial entrepreneurs or concessionaires.

As her major electoral opponents, Megawati has now encountered one general, Wiranto (for the Golkar Party) whom Wahid fired from his cabinet for well documented human rights violations, and another, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), for the Partai Demokrat, whom she had fired from her own cabinet for alleged disloyalty— which firing the public largely interpreted as her pique at his not obliging her corrupt husband, Taufik Kiemas. Wiranto commanded the armed forces in 1998-99 and then served as coordinating minister for politics and security from 1999 to 2000; SBY was Wiranto’s chief of staff for territorial affairs and then coordinating minister for politics and security from 2001 until earlier this year, first under Wahid and then under Megawati.

The direct balloting for president on July 5 (still proceeding toward certification) has apparently reduced three serious contenders to two. SBY has won over a third of the ballots; Megawati just over a quarter; and Wiranto less than a quarter. So it is now SBY vs. Mega, with two months to go.

Amid democratic choices and cries for reforms, military and paramilitary phenomena persist. Books by Kevin O’Rourke and Damien Kingsbury give the reader plenty of background on these and many other matters. They are both clearly conceived and courageously written. At the height of President Suharto’s power, such books could have resulted in their authors being denied readmission to Indonesia for research. They are published in the apparent trust that open information and candid commentary can breed more of the same, rather then its reversal. I hope such trust remains sound.

However, the June expulsion of Sidney Jones and foreign staff of the International Crisis Group from Indonesia suggests otherwise. Apparently Indonesian Army Intelligence either does not respect the superb research that Jones has done on Jemaah Islamiyah, the jihadist perpetrators of 202 deaths in Bali in October 2002 and another dozen deaths when it bombed the Jakarta Marriott in August 2003. Or perhaps TNI fears that such openness could lead to additional public disclosures of its own military misdeeds in Aceh, Papua, or elsewhere. Possibly TNI is worried that its vast range of off-budget, for-profit enterprises will be further exposed. But why punish a foreigner for pursuing what Indonesian critics themselves have already said very well? [1]

Kevin O’Rourke worked eight years in Jakarta as consultant and risk analyst before becoming the first editor of the authoritative biweekly Van Zorge Report. Writing about Indonesia’s tumultuous transition of May 1998, he concludes that the riots in Jakarta that month, which killed over 1,200 people, were largely premeditated. The bullets that killed protesting students at Trisakti University were from armed forces rifles, the event “designed to serve as a triggering mechanism.” Two days passed before Suharto flew home from a conference in Egypt, to encounter in Jakarta “deliberately instigated riots…meant to ‘delegitimize’” him.

O’Rourke calls this series of events and what followed a “Coup a la Java.” The military took every official step to protect Suharto, while allowing bloody disorder to erode his power. Under Wiranto, later patterns of promotion would advance and enhance five top officers who could have quieted the city—but did not. Wiranto let General Prabowo take deserved blame for having earlier abducted activists (several of whom, still missing, may be presumed dead). He also let Prabawo be scapegoated for the Trisakti killings and the disaster that followed. Those discredits of Prabowo are probably unwarranted, but they helped Wiranto push his rival into temporary exile.

Wiranto and his associates, having appeared as tardy guardians of a tattered order, eased Suharto safely home to retirement, and let B. J. Habibie, the Vice President, succeed him “constitutionally.” In order to protect the new president and new New Order, in November 1998, Wiranto’s troops at the Semanggi interchange fired into protesting crowds, killing 15 and injuring 500. Ten months later in the same place (“Semanggi II”), they again shot live ammunition, killing four and injuring scores. These brutal episodes remain unprosecuted, like others before them.

A year later, TNI further defamed itself in world opinion by its “scorched earth” policy in East Timor, which led to 1,000 to 2,000 more deaths in actions that defied President Habibie’s policy, abrogated the country’s agreement with the UN, and violated human rights on a mass scale. Both the Indonesian Human Rights Commission and the attorney general’s office named Wiranto as a suspected perpetrator of crimes against humanity. No national or international tribunal, however, has yet been able to bring Wiranto to trial for his command responsibility in these mass murders.

Instead, General Wiranto campaigned for the presidency as an “outsider.” As a crooner out of uniform, he sang dangdut and American pop, trying to meld an image of reliable command and lovable sentimentality. Meanwhile, his agents in the United States, where he might find it difficult to obtain a visa, advocated him to the Pentagon as “the Musharraf of Indonesia.” There are enough gross contradictions here that even the mighty Vulcans in power in Washington could spot them and be en garde. But one could not have been sure of that.

As for Yudhoyono (SBY), many educated people are powerfully attracted to him, and his popularity has galloped forward more generally. They like his mild and flexible style (he also croons), his experience in Bosnia, his apparently genuine support of Reformasi, and his vaunted cleanliness regarding military profiteering and political brokerage. Can this reputation hold up?

Some experts on Indonesia were in paper-rock-scissors speculation, predicting that in the presidential finals of September 2004, Megawati could beat Wiranto; SBY could beat Mega; and Wiranto could beat SBY. If that were true, it was obviously critical which two got into the finals. But in none of the three paired cases was Reformasi a clear winner. Megawati never understood it as worth pursuing, except as an anti-Suharto tactic. Wiranto could talk about it, but he opposed it in his gut, and would clobber it (a Suharto verb) in open confrontation. SBY has committed to it chiefly in his dream states, because of his acute sense of the real limits of Indonesian political will. Now, after the July balloting, he needs only to add 50 precent to his vote to become president, whereas Mega needs to double hers to remain in office. A strong showing in September could give SBY traction upon further reform. But Wiranto and the Golkar party are not likely to help him with that objective.

Friends of Indonesia nonetheless may hope that recent sound constitutional reforms will be followed by legal reforms; that incremental growth of NGOs will give civil society traction for gains in democracy and transparency; that new centers of citizen conscience will arise from the interstices of a society slowly becoming (not South Korea yet) too complex for the military to command by intimidation.

Indonesians can look forward to deciding their presidency on September 20 without an electoral college, a USA boardgame of colored patches that puzzles the world. Their second successive “free, full, and fair” national election gives citizens and observers alike hope that the nation can rise above elite hubris and military obtuseness. Three more successes in this basic genre of democracy might advance Indonesia, by 2020, to other dimensions of a vital life as a republic. Along the way there must occur a thinning out, then an extinction, of the military thuggery that O’Rourke and Kingsbury document. SBY, even as a general, could not easily abet that reform. But could he at least neutralize the political militias and the private armies that have recently marred the face of Indonesia’s democracy? There will be many jobs ahead for the winner on September 20.

Theodore Friend is a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia. He is author of Indonesian Destinies (Harvard University Press, 2003).

Notes
*[1] LIPI (National Institute of Science), “Bila ABRI Menghendaki”: Desakan-Kuat Reformasi Atas Konsep Dwifungsi ABRI [“If ABRI wishes”: Reform Pressure Upon ABRI’s Concept of Dual Function]; Bila ABRI Berbisnis [ABRI’s Business Practices]; Tentara Mendamba Mitra [The Army’s Desire for Friendship]; Tentara Yang Gelisah [A Nervous Army] (Bandung, Mizan Pustaka, 1998-99).

Further Reading
Reformasi: The Struggle for Power in Post-Soeharto Indonesia.
By Kevin O’Rourke (New South Wales: Allen and Unwin, 2002;
Chicago: Independent Publishers Group, 2003. Paper. 499 pp. $24.95)
Power Politics and the Indonesian Military. By Damien Kingsbury
(London and New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003. 280 pp. $114.95)