Indonesia is alternately hailed as one of the great democratic success stories or bemoaned for its corruption and ineffectiveness. Actually, both judgments are justified, explains Edward Aspinall, a senior fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra.
A decade ago, Indonesia was an unlikely candidate to become a stable democracy. Following the collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998, the multi-island Southeast Asian nation’s early steps toward representative government were threatened by three “potentially powerful spoilers”: the military, which had amassed great political power during the 32-year dictatorship; separatist, ethnic, and religious violence; and Islamist movements. In just over 10 years, Aspinall holds, Indonesia has “dealt effectively” with these challenges. Topping off the accomplishments are a flourishing news media market and freely contested multiparty elections. But the young democracy’s stability did not come cheaply: It was won by compromising on quality—accommodating spoilers and giving them power in the political process.
Before 1998, it was conventional wisdom that the military would have a central role in any post-Suharto government. Things have worked out quite differently, an achievement Aspinall calls “perhaps the greatest . . . of Indonesian democratization.” After the Suharto regime’s collapse, the military’s leadership, suffering “a crisis of political confidence,” articulated a “new paradigm” under which it withdrew from political affairs: Police and military were separated, active officers were no longer allowed to occupy political posts, and parliamentary seats reserved for military officers were phased out by 2004. Though the current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was a senior military officer during the Suharto regime, he had a reputation as a reformer.
Despite the reforms, civilian leaders still fear the soldiers. Gross human rights violations that occurred under Suharto remain unpunished. A “territorial command structure,” which “distributed troops throughout the country” and “shadowed civilian government at every level,” continues to operate.
Another threat to Indonesia’s stability in the years after Suharto was the prospect that local and ethnic violence would spread throughout the country. But Indonesia has seen most of the conflicts sputter out or get resolved through peace deals. The decentralization of power has eased tensions between the central government and lower-level juridictions and has enabled “a blossoming of local democracy that is rightly lauded as one of the signature achievements of Indonesia’s reform.” In Aceh Province, the “site of Indonesia’s bloodiest post-Suharto separatist insurgency,” a 2005 peace agreement signed in Helsinki has rendered conditions “almost miraculously peaceful.” Aspinall says that the key to the success of the agreement was allowing the creation of local political parties (banned elsewhere in Indonesia). Former guerrilla leaders have now been elected to govern the province and to head subprovincial districts—and they’ve “overnight transformed themselves into wealthy construction contractors” who have an interest in preserving the peace.
Finally, Islamist movements have never attracted much support in Indonesia, and consequently have been forced to moderate their messages. The government has made “superficial” accommodations to the Islamists in order to maintain their support. For example, in 2008 an anti-pornography law was passed, and in some regions local governments have imposed dress restrictions, curfews for women, and stricter Islamic education requirements. Aspinall says such developments “arguably point to the early stages of a long-term struggle to Islamize the state from within.”
Today Indonesia is grappling with second-tier reforms aimed at improving the quality of governance, which suffered because so many challengers were given “a piece of the democracy pie.” Aspinall warns, “Poor governance is often the midwife of authoritarian reversals, and while Indonesia has yet to produce its Alberto Fujimori, Thaksin Shinawatra, or Vladimir Putin, [it] is not yet out of the danger zone.”