In The News

10 Year Anniversary of Suharto’s Fall – How Far Has Indonesia Come?

May 28, 2008

Ten years ago, in May 1998, rioters thronged the streets of Jakarta, activists occupied the parliament building, students were shot and killed, stores were looted and burned, and attacks and rapes of ethnic Chinese took place. Eventually, then-President Soeharto stepped down from the post he had held for over 32 years, and Indonesia began the momentous transition to a democracy.

Against that backdrop, and the 30 years of authoritarian rule that preceded it, it is nothing short of remarkable that, today, Indonesia is recognized as the most vibrant and stable democracy in the region. Last week, Indonesians paused to remember the dramatic events of ten years ago, and to take stock of how far their nation has come since then.

The list of achievements is impressive. Among the most unthinkable ten years ago, the Indonesian military, once the primary political force in the country, has been completely removed from politics. Indonesians have amended their constitution, reduced the powers of the presidency and empowered the legislature. The country effectively decentralized the majority of policy and budgetary authority from Jakarta to over 400 district governments throughout Indonesia.

Procedural democracy has perhaps been the greatest winner of all — Indonesians have proven beyond doubt that they excel at holding free and fair elections. The 1999 and 2004 national parliamentary elections, followed by the first ever direct election of the president in 2004, and the smooth running of almost 500 direct regional elections (for mayors, district heads, and governors) have well and truly established Indonesia as “elections central”.

Legal and judicial reform, inseparable from anti-corruption efforts, have also been significant. Indonesians established some important institutions ” most notably the Constitutional Court, Judicial Commission, and the Corruption Eradication Commission” which have not only put a significant number of corruptors behind bars, but have begun to actually change the political and business climate in such a way that it is less conducive to pervasive corruption.

So ” Indonesia has achieved an impressive array of reforms in a relatively short time. Democracy appears to have been not only transitioned to, but consolidated. It is therefore somewhat disconcerting to hear from the lips of many Indonesians the “so what?” question. In many cases, democratic reforms have not resulted in tangibly improved lives.

It is somewhat ironic that, after decades of growth and development based on enforced stability during the New Order, Soeharto at last fell from office amidst riots sparked initially by spiraling food prices; ten years later, demonstrations scheduled to commemorate his fall were overshadowed by activists protesting spiraling food prices.

Indonesia’s impressive recovery from the economic crisis of the late 1990s has brought the country back to 6% growth and macroeconomic health ” unfortunately, this has not significantly reduced the poverty rate, or eased the burden of the 40% of the population (100 million people) living on under $2 a day. Very weak capacity of local governments has meant that decentralization, while democratically a success story, has resulted in poor service delivery and generally ineffective governance in many districts. The lack of real, tangible progress in the context of the global phenomena of rising food and fuel prices has meant that some Indonesians look back with seeming nostalgia for the relative stability of the Soeharto era. Indeed, democracy activists are concerned that if the quality of governance does not improve, bringing real change to people’s lives, the commitment to democracy may erode.

It is therefore heartening to see evidence that direct elections — that most basic democratic institution of all — are beginning to have an effect on governance. Beginning in 2005, Indonesians began to directly elect their local leaders. Three years into that process, one can observe district governments vying with each other to improve their competitiveness rating, welcoming assistance in formulating pro-growth and pro-business policy, and asking for input from civil society on how to better combat poverty. The Mayor of Pekalongan, a municipality in Central Java, for example, asked a local budget advocacy NGO to help him re-allocate the city budget to provide more funds for health and education. As the electoral record increasingly shows that voters are not voting according to religious or sectarian lines, but rather voting for fresh faces with a clean record and reputation for competence, local governments will be increasingly given the incentive to improve their performance in delivering important public services.

Ten years after Soeharto’s fall, Indonesia has achieved an impressive array of democratic reforms. Over the next ten years, the challenge for Indonesia will be for those reforms to translate into better governance and concrete improvements in people’s lives.

Robin Bush is The Asia Foundation’s Deputy Country Representative in Indonesia.

View all posts by Robin Bush



One comment on this post:

  1. Though freedom of religious expression is another key indicator of a democracy , which contains two elements: freedom to express a given point of religious view, as well as freedom from undue pressure to conform in a tradition.

Write a comment:

* Required

Comments are moderated. Please be polite and on-topic.

 characters available