Indonesia The Political Debate

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Indonesia - The Political Debate

The political debate

Since independence was declared in 1945, Indonesia has been a magnet for students of comparative politics as well as foreign diplomats and policy makers. Fascination with Indonesia stemmed in part from its population size (estimated to reach more than 210 million population by the year 2000), its strategic location, its economic potential, its great cultural and ethnic diversity, and its fragmented archipelagic shape confounding centralized administration. Equally compelling was Indonesia's tumultuous political history, from Indianization and Islamization to Dutch colonialism and the violence of the decolonization process.

Contemporary Indonesian political history can be segmented into three periods, each defined by a central issue. First, during the 1950s, there was the question of the political integrity of the state itself, beset as it was by religious, regionalist, and ethnic revolts and rebellions. Second, and of great concern to United States policy makers, there was the drift that became a rush to the left and the PKI during the period of Sukarno's Guided Democracy (1959-65). Finally, since 1966, there was the continuing authoritarianism of Suharto's army-dominated New Order. A critical concern of many foreign policy observers on the international scene was Indonesia's failure or unwillingness to embrace liberal democracy either structurally or procedurally. This concern has led to sometimes heated debates among policy analysts about the nature of the Indonesian state and political system.

Some observers condemned the Indonesian government for its authoritarianism, corruption, human- and civil-rights violations, and ethnic suppression. Such criticisms were frequently leveled by Western academics, human rights advocates, and journalists. To the contrary, other observers argued that: the Suharto government enjoyed the support of a majority of Indonesians; that as the New Order had become institutionalized, its roles and structures would survive Suharto's presidency; and that there was no real alternative leadership. In the view of these observers, the apparent inconsistency between the image of a repressive regime and its success in gaining popular acceptance was explained by the simple fact that the Suharto government delivered on its economic promises. Some observers argued that real economic growth and its "trickle down" impact in improving the standard of living of many Indonesians offset grievances about a closed political system. As a result, these analysts described the New Order's economic success as a direct challenge to conventional Western developmentalist theory that economic growth could only occur simultaneously with democratization. In fact, in Indonesia's case, economic development and widespread increases in the nation's standard of living consolidated the support of a government that was viewed as fundamentally undemocratic. At the same time, most observers agreed that the complexity, the number, and the interdependence of various social, cultural, economic, and political factors are so great that no single answer suffices.

Given the background of Suharto's ascent to power and the ultimate coercive authority of ABRI behind the New Order, many observers attributed the government's ability to sustain popular support to the role of the military in Indonesia. In fact, the dominance of the military in Indonesian politics was apparent early in postindependence Indonesia. By 1958 army chief of staff General Abdul Haris Nasution had enunciated a policy that he called the "middle way." According to this strategy, military officers participated in the affairs of government. By 1965 this policy had expanded into the notion of dwifungsi, or dual function, according to which the military had two roles: a traditional defense and security role and a new social and national development role. Despite misgivings from some civilian quarters, dwifungsi became law in 1982, constitutionally legitimizing what had been military ideology.

Thus, because Indonesia in the early 1990s was and had been since 1966 a military-dominated system, many observers considered discussion of the military's role integral to the debate on Indonesia's government and politics. Furthermore, these analysts called for a more sophisticated level of discussion than one based on concepts such as military dictatorship or military oligarchy. At one time, the "bureaucratic polity" model was popular among scholars as a way of describing the role of Indonesia's armed forces. "Bureaucratic polity" defines a system in which a limited group of senior bureaucrats, technocrats, and military officers participate in authoritative decision making. The policy outcome tends to reflect the interests and values of this relatively closed elite group. According to this view, competition for real political power in Jakarta was restricted to the top bureaucratic and military echelons. The value of the "bureaucratic polity" model lessened, however, as nonbureaucratic classes, structures, and decision centers emerged in the developmental process and began articulating autonomous interests. The "political economy" model came to seem more relevant to discussions of the Indonesian political system because it relied on crucial linkages among the state, economy, and society. This emphasis reflected more accurately, in the view of many observers, the congruence of economic interests between Indonesia's ruling and entrepreneurial elites, in both equity sharing and corruption. In addition, an in-depth understanding of the Indonesian political system during the early 1990s required the understanding of the ethnic dimension, that is the role of Chinese Indonesians in the political economy.

The authoritarian aspects of the Indonesian state provoked the most nuanced debate among scholars, who used numerous models to explain its political system. Some Western scholars termed Indonesia's political system "soft authoritarianism" to distinguish it from overtly repressive regimes. Soft authoritarianism implied the existence of an institution-building ruling elite that, although limiting choices that might challenge its control over the nation's social, political, and economic resources, was still committed to bettering the life of its citizens. Only the most adamant critics have argued that the Suharto government ruled by fear and terror. What was it, then, these scholars asked, that has allowed a military countercoup to evolve into institutionalized "soft authoritarianism"? One explanation framed Indonesian authoritarianism in terms of "corporatism," that is, the funneling of political forces and interests into government-sponsored and -controlled organizations. Under this theory, Golkar, the government's political base that attracts mass support, was seen as an example of "corporatist" politics. Similarly, the All Indonesian Workers Union (SPSI) in 1992 was a government-controlled umbrella under which the trade union movement became centralized. Even the media had a responsibility to promote national goals.

Another scholarly approach cast contemporary Indonesian "authoritarianism" into a historical mold, fitting it squarely into the indigenous pattern of patrimonial politics: Suharto as a Javanese king. Proponents of this approach speculated that these patrimonial tendencies grew stronger in the colonial period and were replicated in the modern state. Whatever the approach used to describe and analyze Indonesian government and politics, in the 1990s it required an understanding of the legal basis and institutional structures of the system.

More about the Government and Politics of Indonesia.

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