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Insights and Analysis

Lessons from Indonesia’s Democratic Transition

May 4, 2011

By Robin Bush

Much has already been said about the parallels between Indonesia’s transition to democracy in the late 1990s, and protests in Egypt that led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February. Both are large, Muslim-majority countries, ruled for approximately three decades by authoritarian leaders who were ultimately toppled by popular, youth-led movements demanding greater democratic freedoms.

Farmers protest in Jakarta

Indonesia’s own transition to democracy has been evolving for the past 13 years, and the country has made some remarkable achievements, though in some areas challenges remain. Above in Jakarta, farmers protest for additional rights. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh.

In both cases, the authoritarian president was relatively popular for a portion of his tenure, and brought significant development gains to his country before allowing family members and cronies to take a disproportionate share of the wealth, and before military repression of civil rights became intolerable. Economic suffering, unemployment, and poverty, in both cases, played a major catalytic role in the transition.

Of course each country in the Middle East, and Egypt in particular, has its own unique history and culture, which makes it dangerous to draw facile comparisons or linkages regarding something as multi-faceted and complex as democratic transition. That said, the globalized context we live in precludes the possibility of any culture or people existing in a vacuum. It is also inevitable that both leaders and young people in the Middle East are paying close attention to examples of democratic reform and economic growth and vitality in Asia.

Indonesia’s own transition to democracy has been evolving for the past 13 years, and the country has made some remarkable achievements, though in some areas challenges remain, as I’ve discussed in this blog before. While Indonesia is still fine-tuning and strengthening its democracy, it has learned some lessons which may be helpful to others embarking on democratic transition.

One crucial factor to the sustainability of Indonesia’s democracy has been the insistence from the beginning of removing the military from politics. Immediately after Suharto fell while public demand for democracy was strong, Indonesian leaders acted fast and separated the police from the military and revoked the right for active-duty military officers to sit in parliament or to hold political party positions. The military was allowed to retain its business holdings, though this was to be gradually phased out as well. This combination of removing a political role, yet allowing the military to remain economically engaged has proven to be an effective compromise that has to date withstood pressures for the military to reassert a political presence.

Another key factor to Indonesia’s successful democracy is its rich and vibrant civil society that – despite 30 years of authoritarianism – managed to maintain a strong presence in society. Given the opportunity after Suharto’s ouster, civil society groups moved quickly into both watchdog and technical support roles for the new democratic state institutions such as the judiciary and the legislature. The capacity of civil society was in part due to the investment and support that international groups gave over many years during the New Order, despite the fact that a democratic transition looked unlikely.

Indonesia’s highly influential religious groups also played a critical role in Indonesia’s successful transition. Student groups affiliated with Muslim mass-based organizations Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah were part of student protests that brought down the New Order, but in addition to that, during the reform period, women and student groups as well as NGOs affiliated with NU and Muhammadiyah were active in voter education and election monitoring, developing democracy education curriculum in schools, promoting human rights and pluralism, and strengthening religious freedom within the new democracy. Due to their credibility and legitimacy within communities throughout the country, these two Muslim organizations played a vital role in the relatively quick integration of democratic values within Indonesian society.

Of course, none of these factors can be replicated precisely across vastly different historical and cultural contexts. Nevertheless, they may simply provide inspiration, or hope, as other reformist movements across the Middle East seek to chart their own courses.

Robin Bush is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you.

    A question: Will it be correct to say that as the economy expanded, the military career became less attractive and that helped the emergence of democracy in Indonesia?

    How does one explain the ex-military persons getting elected to high office? The prestige attached to the military?


  1. The Arab Awakening: Governance Lessons for Asia and Beyond | In Asia - [...] and in some areas, is actually regressing.” (Read Robin’s new post this week, where she offers lessons from Indonesia’s…

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