A New Indonesia

A New Indonesia

Indonesia's government has been undergoing a quiet--and much-needed--process of reform.

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“Indonesia’s Quiet Revolution” by Lex Rieffel, in Foreign Affairs (Sept.–Oct. 2004), 58 E. 58th St., New York, N.Y. 10021.

Terrorism has drawn the world’s attention to Indonesia in recent years—the 2002 bombing by Muslim extremists that killed 202 people in Bali, and the bombing a year later at the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta that killed 12. Mean­while, hardly anybody has noticed that the world’s largest Muslim-
majority nation (population: 235 million) has also been carrying out a democratic transformation of the political system: Reformasi.

The change began in 1998, when huge protests drove President Suharto from office after more than three decades of iron rule. The next year, a new 550-member national parliament (the DPR) was chosen, in the first openly contested elections since 1955. A central element of Reformasi was a constitutional amendment calling for direct election of the president beginning in 2004. This past September, Susilo Bambang Yudhyono, a retired army general, defeated incumbent president Megawati Sukarnoputri (the daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno) in a landslide vote, and a smooth transition to a new government followed. That was “a major achievement,” says Rieffel, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

When Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1945, its new constitution rested on a strong presidency. But the president was chosen by a People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) that included members of parliament and representatives of “functional” groups, such as the military—all controlled by Suharto during his reign.

After his removal, the MPR began to introduce “critical checks and balances” through constitutional amendments. The “functional” representatives and groups in the MPR were replaced with a senate composed of 128 directly elected, nonpartisan members from the country’s 32 provinces. Today, the MPR is much reduced in power and more democratic: Its only components are the senate and parliament. Only the parliament can enact laws, though the president must concur.

The Indonesian military continues to cast “a long shadow” over the country’s political life, says Rieffel, but its influence is much diminished. Though retired military officers appeared as candidates and supporters in the 2004 election campaigns, they were scattered among 24 political parties.

Yudhyono’s Democratic Party is secular, and last year’s elections “reaffirmed the strength of moderate Islam in Indonesia,” notes Rieffel. But most Indonesians—long accustomed to violence against innocent civilians from various sources (including the military)—do not regard fighting terrorism as a high priority. Far more important to them are the fights against chronic corruption and unemployment.

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