In Asia’s year of elections, Indonesian democracy is hanging by a thread

This is Asia’s great year of elections. Taiwan’s has already taken place, throwing the country into the worst turmoil for decades; the Philippines, Indonesia and India lie ahead. Altogether, over 1.3 billion people will have had the opportunity to vote. For India, elections are a well-established practice, for Taiwan and the Philippines they are rather more novel, for Indonesia they are an almost entirely new experience. In its 53-year history of independence, Indonesia has only voted in free elections twice. On Monday it will vote in the country’s parliamentary elections. And, as if to make up for the democratic starvation, will vote again in the presidential elections in June.

Indonesia, an archipelago of 13,000 islands and the world’s fourth most populous country, is rarely given the attention its size deserves. Its wider influence is dissipated by its own internal complexity. In terms of population, Indonesia may tower over south-east Asia, but this is not matched in terms of its power and authority. Compare this with China, whose size similarly dwarfs north-east Asia, yet whose growing power is rapidly casting a shadow over the entire region. Of course, the two could hardly be more different. While Indonesia is extremely heterogeneous, China is remarkably homogeneous, dominated as it is by one ethnic group. China is so old no one really knows when it started. Indonesia, in its ethnic and religious diversity, could only be a product of European colonialism.

Virtually every country in the region, bar China, was hit by the Asian financial crisis, but Indonesia suffered most. GDP fell by 20% and tens of millions were thrown out of work. Indonesia’s economic travails culminated in a political crisis and the overthrow of President Suharto, who had ruled the country for 32 years with an extraordinary brutality.

Indonesia was borne on a wave of optimism following his fall. For three years, a massive movement of reform – “reformasi” – swept away many of the worst features of Suharto’s rule. 1999 saw the first free elections since 1955. Press freedom was introduced, limited decentralisation allowed, East Timor granted independence, and the role of the military restricted. But heady optimism has now given way to a growing sense of uncertainty.
Reformasi has ground to a halt. The political figurehead of the movement, Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia’s charismatic leader and founding father, has now been president for almost three years. Much had been expected of her. She was the leader in waiting. Yet, when she was finally crowned, nothing happened. Reformasi now finds itself rudderless and directionless.

This is not just disappointing; it is dangerous. Indonesia is caught betwixt and between, half-reformed and half-unreformed. Part of the old regime has been dismantled, but the bulk of it remains intact and extremely influential. The military is hugely powerful, even though its wings have been clipped. The judiciary is riddled with corruption. Suharto is still a free man and, from behind the scenes, is using his vast wealth to pull strings. There is growing nostalgia, especially on Java, for the Suharto era of growth and stability. The threat of an authoritarian backlash and the return of the old regime lurk just beneath the surface.

Indonesia’s only previous experience of democracy was under Sukarno, the country’s first president, who inspired the independence movement and melded the country together with great skill and vision. But since 1965/66, when the army murdered up to half a million communists and arrested Sukarno, and Suharto seized power – with the connivance of the United States – Indonesia has been governed by a regime based on coercion and violence: more than a million people have perished. For all the achievements of reformasi, the imprint of Suharto still remains far stronger than the legacy of Sukarno.

The problems of the new democracy are compounded by the fact that Indonesia is the only country in the region not to have recovered from the Asian crisis. While every other country has been restored to more or less full health, Indonesia is growing at barely half the pre-crisis rate and foreign investment is still leaving the country.

This is hardly an encouraging backdrop to the elections. It is expected that Megawati’s party, the PDIP, will poll the most votes in the parliamentary elections, with Golkar, Suharto’s old party, coming second. Megawati remains favourite to win the presidential election in June, but only if she wins on the first ballot: if it goes to a second round, then the feeling is that she could be narrowly defeated.

The greatest immediate danger is probably a close election, whose result is contested and which deprives the new president of legitimacy. The consequence could well be growing unrest. There are those who argue that once Megawati is no longer elected by, and answerable to, parliament, she will find a new boldness. This seems unlikely. She is a timid president who lacks her father’s political vision and courage. So even if she is elected, it is likely that the present drift will continue.

In this growing mood of uncertainty, there is also, of course, the fundamentalist threat. In the Bali and Marriott bombings, Indonesia suffered two of the worst acts of global terrorism in what is the world’s largest Muslim country. The terrorists are entirely unrepresentative of the Islamic mainstream. Indeed, the Islamic tradition in Indonesia is largely tolerant and pluralistic. The real danger posed by terrorism is to the new democracy and how it might contribute to a climate of fear and chaos.

The military, meanwhile, is beginning to regain some of its previous confidence. The greatest problem facing Indonesia is not its Islamic character, but how to govern such extraordinary diversity. The Suharto style was to unleash the army in an effort to destroy any opposition. East Timor may be the best-known case, but there are countless other examples of violent suppression across the islands. The underlying source of the military’s power has been, and remains, its ability to pose as the saviour of the nation, the only force that can hold it together.

In her handling of the movement for an independent Aceh, Megawati has shown no sign of breaking from this practice. On the contrary, she has given the military its head in the province. Until the Javanese elite, who effectively run the country, finds another, more consensual way of governing Indonesia, then force will always lie at the heart of government. It is this which poses the continuing danger to democracy, and which ultimately could lead to a more serious fragmentation of the country. The balance of Indonesian history – before and after independence – is overwhelmingly weighted in favour of the mailed fist rather than the velvet glove. This year’s elections are testimony to the strength and courage of reformasi – but Indonesian democracy still hangs by a thin thread. The forces of darkness are waiting in the wings.