Thousands of rioters poured into the streets of the nation’s capital. They were tired of their government’s ineffectiveness in solving their country’s dire economic situation. They demanded political rights that had been stifled for decades. They were sick of the corruption that had seeped into the ruling party. They were ready for change. Their calls were finally answered as their leader delivered his official resignation address. No, this is not a depiction of Tahrir Square in Egypt. It is the 1998 revolution in Indonesia.
It makes sense why scholars are making comparisons between the revolutions that comprised the Arab spring and Indonesia’s 1998 revolution. Both involved societies that were feeling serious financial pangs. Both societies experienced a crackdown on free speech and press as well as the top-down prevention of the formation of certain political parties. The army served as the primary protection of the regime, interfering extensively in political affairs as well as non-military, societal affairs. And most apparent, each revolution was an attempt to depose a leader who had been in power for a period of at least a few decades. On top of all that, Indonesia has the highest Muslim population of any nation—a figure that has not gone unnoticed by those worried about Islam’s future political influence in Egypt and other nations that partook in the Arab spring.
While many believe that Indonesia—a secular, democratic state—should be used as a model for developing democracies, many are hesitant to do so. Their primary concerns surround the amount of corruption still prevalent in Indonesia’s government as well as the government’s ineffectiveness in preventing a large number of attacks on minority religious groups by Islamic fundamentalist groups. While these problems might on the outset depict a negative image of Indonesia, they should not be interpreted as a failure of a free political system in Indonesia. Rather they reflect the growing pains that accompany a nation still undergoing its transition to democracy—a transition that only began 14 years ago. Indonesia is not a perfect model for Egypt—yet.
The democratic system instituted in Indonesia post-President Suharto (Indonesia’s authoritarian leader for thirty years) is a parliamentary system with the power shared between the parliament (People’s Consultative Assembly or MPR), the president, and a judicial branch. The current president is President Yudhoyono of the Democratic Party (IPD), and they have won every direct election since the revolution. Professor Jay Rosengard, faculty affiliate of both Harvard’s Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation and Harvard’s Center for International Development, emphasized to the Harvard Political Review that direct elections are something the United States does not even have. He also pointed out that following Suharto’s resignation in 1999, those who reformed Indonesia’s political system instituted a strong decentralized system in response to the authoritarian regime. They sought to empower local levels of civil society as much as possible. This power struggle between local levels of government and the federal government is a continuing problem today.
It is clear that corruption is still a major problem for the Indonesian government. In May 2011, the PDI’s treasurer Muhammed Nazaruddin was accused of accepting bribes that were connected to the South East Asian games the nation was holding later that year. He fled the country before the Corruption Eradication Committee (KPK) could place a travel-ban on him, and was finally arrested in August in Columbia, where he reportedly claimed that other high-ranking members of the Democratic Party were also involved in the scandal. He also revealed that his motives were not personal, but for the purpose of raising money for the Democratic Party—the party to which President Yudhoyono belongs.
The KPK’s later investigations revealed that Nazaruddin’s company, Permai group, had been bribing parliamentarians and various PDI leaders in exchange for government contracts. It was estimated that the company paid 30 billion rupiah (5 million US dollars) to the PDI-dominated congress in 2010. Angelina Sondakh, PDI leader and deputy secretary-general was included in a list of those allegedly involved in the scandal.
In an unrelated case of corruption, former senior deputy of Indonesia’s Central Bank, Miranda Swaray Goeltom, stood trial on July 24th for vote-buying during her election in 2004.
The Indonesian people’s dissatisfaction with this corruption is clearly reflected in the polls. In May 2011, the Jakarta Globe released a poll claiming that 50% believed that the conditions in Indonesia bettered under Suharto than they do today. (Analysts claim that the poll does not indicate that people would like to go back to an authoritarian regime, but rather they are dissatisfied with what the “Reform Era” under the Democratic Party has accomplished thus far.) By February of this year, the PDI’s popularity had plummeted further—one poll depicted a measly 14% in favor of the party. It also revealed that only 17.3% of the population said they would vote for President Yudhoyono in 2014 if he could run again. (He cannot because of the two-term limit on presidents in their constitution.) The dissatisfaction with Yudhoyono in particular seems to stem from his inability to deliver on his original promise to end the corruption prevalent in the government.
Professor Rosengard admitted to the HPR that corruption is still a very big problem in all areas of the Indonesian government. “When you have decentralization,” he explains, “corruption tends to increase.” However, he sees it also as the continuation of a preexisting problem that they are working seriously to “tackle head on.” He cited the powerful anti-corruption commission that has been successful in jailing many officials who have broken the law. Most recent is the KPK’s charges against Indonesia’s chief police detective Susno Duadji for multiple instances of corruption regarding bribery. Though corruption exists, Indonesians are demonstrating more and more that it will not be tolerated.
Militant Islamist Groups
An even further area of criticism is the Indonesian government’s failure to protect minority religions from radical Islamist groups. Various Christian and Ahmadi communities in particular have been the target of increasing violence for the past decade or so, mainly at the hands of a movement known as the Islamic Defenders Front. The Human Rights Watch reported at the beginning of this year that there were 216 cases of such religious attacks in 2010 and 184 attacks from January to September 2011. The report also described a particular incident that took place in February 2011 where 1500 Islamists attacked a house in Western Jakarta. Three Ahmadi men were killed and 5 others were seriously wounded. In July 12 men involved in the attack were sentenced to between three and six months imprisonment, and they were not charged for manslaughter. This is just one of many Ahmadi communities attacked that year.
That same month three churches were burned down after preacher Antonius Bawarang was convicted of “blasphemy” and sentenced to five years in prison—the motivation for the attack was the Islamists’ belief that he should have been executed. Not one person was convicted.
Many allege that the government’s grip on the situation is either slippery or nonexistent. This is due primarily to the balance of power between local levels of government and the national authority. Civil authorities seem to be the primary instigator of the attacks due to a combination of local policies against religious minority groups as well as their failure to bring those directly responsible to justice. For instance, in 2006 President Yudhoyono passed a law making it increasingly difficult to build houses of worship. This has resulted in local officials refusing to hand over necessary permits to religious leaders to build churches and Ahmadi mosques—including those attempting to rebuild their institution after an attack. Since 2004 when Yudhoyono was elected, more than 400 churches have been shut down. 22 more have closed from January to June this year and on May 17th in Bekasi, 600 Islamists threw bags of urine and ditchwater at members of the Philadelphia Batak Christian Protestant Church.
In addition, the political side of the issue further complicates things. Many allege that because of the coalition between political Islamist groups and Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party, he has no option but to bed to their will. We must be cautious, however, not to lump all political Islamist groups into one category associated with the violent radicals. Professor Rosengard pointed out that there is a spectrum of Islamist parties in Indonesia, many of whom are mainstream and moderate. These groups in particular ran not on a platform of an Islamic state, but of “good government.” The few who champion a more radical and orthodox view of Islam exist, and unfortunately, “as in many parliamentary systems, often the smallest groups are the loudest.” If they constitute the swing vote in a coalition, then the smallest party can become the most powerful. Indonesia’s government represents a structure of compromise, and Yudhoyono’s cabinet reflects the composition of parties in the parliament, making it very difficult to govern.
So it seems that a combination of Yudhoyono’s balancing act between competing interests and sensitivities, and the decentralized nature of Indonesia’s federal government explains the absence of a harsh crackdown on these Islamist groups. When asked about actions that the government is taking to prevent further attacks, Professor Rosengard speculated that “he [Yudhoyono] is worried about a backlash.” The last thing he wants to do is alienate either the Muslim majority or his political base.
Where he and his government have been extremely successful, however, is in their endeavor to break up domestic terrorist cells. Since March, Indonesia’s counter-terrorist unit has arrested over 30,000 suspects associated with militant groups—a figure not to be belittled. Just this past September, authorities foiled a terror plot targeting what they believe to have been the parliament in Jakarta. Nine suspects were arrested. Professor Rosengard speculates that Yudhoyono perceives these terrorist groups as the immediate security threat and therefore the immediate area of concern.
Hope for the Future
What makes Indonesia’s story so amazing is not the conclusion—that we have yet to experience. Rather, it is the perseverance of Indonesian leaders to bring about positive change in their nation, despite the bumps in the road. One testament to this effort is the Harvard Kennedy School Indonesia Program. This program was created to support democracy and institutional development in Indonesia through research and education. A branch of this program is called the Leadership Transformation in Indonesia program. It invites local Indonesian officials such as mayors and district heads to the United States and works to educate them in public policy and management. According to Professor Rosengard, change in Indonesia has to start at the local level. They are at the “front lines of the decentralization program.” Because one of the “major obstacles to growth is limited institutional capacity,” institutional transformation is an area of primary focus for these officials. The goal is that they will return to their homes equipped with the tools to run a local governance that effectively provides goods and services to its people.
Beyond the politics, Indonesia has demonstrated its progress at the social level as well. In Jakarta just this past month, the Joko Widodo and Basuki Tjahaja ticket—a moderate Muslim and an ethnically Chinese Christian—beat the incumbents—publicly strict Muslims—In Jakarta’s governor elections. It seems that the people of Indonesia have come a long way from their history of discrimination against the Chinese and suspicion toward liberal Muslims.
Before we are so quick to peg Indonesia as a failed example of democracy in an Islamic nation, we need to recognize that Indonesia’s fight for freedom is not yet over. The transformation from authoritarian rule to democracy is long and bumps in the road are inevitable. What makes Indonesia remarkable—and Professor Rosengard points out that this has political scientists stumped—is their drive to come together as a nation to make positive reforms, despite the immense diversity comprising the population. If nations post-Arab spring are to emulate anything about Indonesia, it is their never-give-up attitude in the struggle to ride the bumps and achieve the freedoms they know they deserve.
Photo credit of asiasociety.org.