Against All Odds - Democratisation in Post-Suharto Indonesia

Indonesia's transformation from authoritarianism to democracy in the past decade is nothing short of extraordinary. But as Professor of Political Science Douglas Webber details, Indonesia's efforts so far should be viewed as a shift towards a "patrimonial" style of democracy, at best. While there are many reasons to remain optimistic for the future of the world's biggest Moslem nation, corruption remains both rampant and endemic. The rule of law is also weak, as is the national leadership's ability to govern effectively.

by Douglas Webber
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Amid virtually no international fanfare, Indonesia has made a remarkable transition from authoritarian rule to democracy. In the seven years since the death of Suharto, its long-reigning strongman, the world's biggest Moslem nation has staged a series of free, fair and peaceful elections.

However, as Professor of Political Science Douglas Webber details, Indonesia's transformation should be viewed as a shift towards a "patrimonial" style of democracy. Corruption remains both rampant and endemic. The rule of law is also weak, as is the national leadership's ability to govern effectively.

Webber maintains that the country's evolution is doubly commendable, in light of the very considerable obstacles of recent years it has had to hurdle. The profound Asian economic crisis of 1997-8, which saw the national currency plummet, did not destroy its socio-political momentum. Moreover, Indonesia possesses patently few of the main traits scholars commonly maintain are conducive, if not essential, to sustainable democratisation processes.

While acknowledging that Indonesia arguably displays many attributes of a consolidated democratic political system, the author feels it is far less clear "what kind of a democracy is being consolidated, and how likely it is that the system has found a 'self-perpetuating equilibrium' or will 'progress' and become a more liberal consolidated democracy".

His main concerns in this respect are that certain patrimonial norms and practices - many of which have endured for centuries - are so deeply interwoven into the fabric of much of Indonesian society. Furthermore, it remains unclear how much the role of "non-elected veto groups - i.e. the military and its various minions - has been neutralised in the post-Suharto era. Webber feels that the armed forces on the whole remain "a formidable, but far from omnipotent, political player".

In spite of the justifiable concerns in the aftermath of terrorist bombings, it is also worth noting how peaceful and conciliatory the country's many Islamist political parties have been. Radical groups advocating violent change have fallen far short of gaining widespread popular support. As the author discusses, there are historical and cultural reasons why Indonesia's Moslems are uniquely diverse, allowing for the predominance of secular nationalist political forces throughout the post-colonial era.

Webber asserts that, based on commonly accepted criteria, Indonesia compares very favourably with other so-called "third wave democracies" in terms of the extent of its democratic consolidation. However, definite warning signals abound. Its citizens in general have expressed growing dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy since Suharto's 1999 stand down - even showing some willingness to trade some rights and freedoms "for a strong leader".

Moreover, Suharto's fall did not cause massive changes in the makeup or practices of the national bureaucracy, judiciary or military, nor precipitate any radical redistribution of power away from the business elite. A good many foreign investors are also loath to involve themselves in what is regularly rated one of the world's most corrupt countries. In short, "behind a formally democratic fa├žade and a partly democratic reality, much of the daily political life ... remains very patrimonial".

Nevertheless, Webber sees many reasons for optimism if Indonesia's current overall course towards democratisation can be maintained, especially since "in the political battles [of recent years], the majority of voters have come down strongly on the side of the reform-oriented forces".

Within many established political parties, pressures for internal reforms and more accountable leadership are intensifying, (albeit at different rates and with varying degrees of success). It is in such areas that Webber sees Indonesia's greatest chances for successfully breaking with inherited patrimonial norms and practices.


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