Now the Work Begins: Lessons from Indonesia’s Democratic Transition

By Jeremy Kingsley

Insight 21 Kingsley

A major part of the struggle will be to lift the yoke of oppression in our hearts, the veil of repression from our minds, the shroud of fear from our spirits. – Julia Suryakasuma, Jakarta, 1998.

There is jubilation over regime change and the fall of despised dictators in the Middle East, but a democratic path for Egypt or Tunisia is neither direct nor assured. The transition from authoritarianism to democracy requires both structural and psychological changes to the institutional structures of authoritarianism and the mindsets developed during these repressive years, as Julia Suryakasuma elucidates in the above quote.

This article offers, in brief, some lessons learned during the democratic transition in Indonesia.

Indonesia is the world’s third most populous democracy and the largest Muslim-majority nation. Its population of approximately 240 million people is spread across an archipelago of around 16,000 islands. Until 1998, this Southeast Asian nation experienced three decades of authoritarian rule under President Soeharto. The political demise of the Soeharto regime came after the Indonesian economy collapsed in the wake of the 1997 Asian economic crisis. This brought about a season of political discontent and protests similar to those we have been witnessing in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the region.

While Indonesia is considered a successful case of democratic transition and, indeed, a model for these Middle Eastern states, it would be inaccurate to suggest that the transition has passed without problems. These problems include corrupt political practices, violence against religious minorities and ineffective courts. Corruption has been widespread during the reformasi period (the name given to period of democratic transition in Indonesia), because many politicians have abused their increased authority and power in this new political environment. For example, Lalu Serinata, the former governor of the province of Nusa Tenggara Barat, was sentenced to three years imprisonment for corruption offences in mid-2009 arising from the inducements he provided during the 2003 legislative election campaign for governor. Despite these problems, over the past decade the larger political canvas reflects a steady, if slow, consolidation of democratic reform.

Given this mixed record of success, the following are six issues for both the people and the governments in Egypt and Tunisia to reflect upon as lessons learned by their Indonesian counterparts.

  • Religion – In both Egypt and Tunisia there needs to be discussion about the status and role of majority and minority religions. For instance, the place of the majority religion, Islam, in both these countries needs to be incorporated into public debates about democratic reforms. To ignore this issue is to dismiss an important element in many Muslims’ lives.
  • To a large extent how this debate proceeds will depend on the willingness of religious leaders to accept ongoing democratic reform and their ability to lead their communities not just to the ballot box, but to also promote democratic ideals and roles. Abdurrahman Wahid, commonly known in Indonesia as Gus Dur, was a respected Muslim religious leader who was also the second President in the reformasi era. He demonstrated that Islamic leaders could also participate as democratic leaders, willing to act not just in the interests of their own religious community, but also act on behalf of Indonesians of other faiths.

  • Minorities – One of the toughest aspects of democratic reform is to ensure that minority groups are not marginalized. In the blurry adulation of democratic reform it is easy for the majority to feel that they have “won” the right to dominate political life. The problem is that this can politically marginalize minorities. The social and economic vulnerability of minorities has the potential to lead to an increased number of attacks on these communities.
  • For instance, Indonesia is currently grappling with how to relate to the Ahmadiyah, a Muslim minority group. Many Indonesian Muslims believe the Ahmadiyah to be a deviant sect. Consequently, extremist groups have taken to terrorizing Ahmadiyah members, as occurred earlier this year when four of them were killed and their property severely damaged in Banten, Java. The potential for similar social tensions also exists in Egypt. Conflict has regularly occurred between majority Sunni Muslims and minority Coptic Christians, who clashed violently as recently as March despite their cohesion during the Egyptian Revolution. In this new period of Egyptian governance, the challenge is to provide minority communities with a stake in the political process and appropriate levels of community protection.

  • Tangible benefits (economics) – Governance needs economic underpinnings. When I was undertaking field research on the eastern Indonesian island of Lombok, this truism was opined regularly by prominent politicians. Without food in citizens’ bellies there was no chance for political and social stability. Lombok’s politicians recognize that economic stress can lead to political and communal violence. In fact, the Tunisian Revolution was sparked by the self-immolation of an unemployed yet college educated young man, Mohammad Bouazizi. Uprisings in the region have been sustained by Bouazizi’s youthful counterparts, who comprise a large proportion of the population. With sixty percent of the regions people under thirty and youth experiencing unemployment at around four times the rates of their older compatriots, economics play a major role in the social unrest. Consequently growing economic disparities between the haves and have-nots have further inflamed citizens across the Middle East and North Africa.

  • Elections – It is necessary for electoral democracy to be administered fairly and transparently. Obvious principles, but worth noting. If the public view elections as merely a façade they will lose faith in the political transition. The international community has actively supported electoral reform in Indonesia (for example, USAID’s Democratic Reform Support Program in Indonesia). If Tunisia and Egypt are to hold successful elections, then they need to be supported both technically and financially. The development of independent electoral commissions with the ability to act impartially and efficiently is no easy task. Therefore, without this technical support these nations will face difficulties in solidifying their democratic institutions.

  • Legal reforms and institution building – Law reform will be necessary to ensure that the vestiges of lengthy periods of authoritarianism are removed, such as the removal of state of emergency / martial law rule. Yet it is not only the law that requires reform, but also the very institutions that enforce it.
  • In Indonesia, 30 years of authoritarian rule led to significant degradation of key institutions, such as the police, prosecutors and the courts. The interplay between the police and military has been a fraught area. In the past, Indonesia’s police were part of the military. The reformasi era saw the two entities separate, leading to some major difficulties including ‘turf wars’ between the police and military over functional responsibilities. For instance, in Aceh, the military leadership was unhappy with a reduced law enforcement role in the province. This was largely because it affected the military’s private security arrangements with businesses. As a result the military agitated against an increased civilian police role in the already troubled province. In Tunisia and Egypt, there needs to be a clear reform process for security apparatuses and reconfiguration of these entities so that they assist with the development of new law enforcement mechanisms in line with democratic governance standards and human rights norms.
  • Another challenge facing Indonesia’s law reform process is that prosecutors had essentially lost the art of gathering evidence and preparing cases. In the period of authoritarian rule their success in prosecuting matters was almost assured, rendering any real prosecutorial skills obsolete. Therefore, Egyptian and Tunisian authorities need to re-train and up-skill prosecutors and their departments. Without this institutional makeover many of the protestors’ demands for justice and legal transparency will remain rhetoric.

  • Anti-corruption measures – Political corruption during Soeharto-era Indonesia was deeply entrenched. Corruption was ‘administered’ with efficiency from the most senior government official to the junior clerk. Therefore, its eradication has been a difficult and ongoing process. A specialized anti-corruption agency was created and has had significant success in prosecuting corrupt officials. All strata of society have been affected with even those close to the current Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) being implicated. Recently SBY has seen his son’s father-in-law prosecuted for corruption. The decision to setup a new and independent anti-corruption organization in Indonesia essentially ensures that potentially corrupted prosecutors from the old regime are not involved in investigating themselves.

These six areas provide examples of the challenging times ahead. They are not a blue-print for change. Democratization will only come through a process of discussion, compromise and hardheaded decision-making within the transitioning societies. Important to this process, as Julia Suryakasuma notes, is that Egyptians and Tunisians must open their hearts to the democratic era, a difficult task after living for so long under repressive regimes.

Jeremy Kingsley is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore. He can be contacted at The views expressed herein are his own.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *