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Indonesia is alternately lauded as a democratization success story and derided as an exemplar of low-quality democracy. This article explains both Indonesian democracy's surprising survival and its defects by focusing on how it fended off three potential spoilers: the military, Islamism and ethnic and regional unrest. In each case, democratic spoilers were granted concessions and incorporated into the democratic system, rather than being excluded from it, pointing to an absorptive capacity in Indonesian democracy inherited from the predecessor authoritarian Suharto regime. Indonesian democracy's resilience and its defects are not in fundamental conflict, but are two sides of the one coin.
The Irony of Success
Edward Aspinall
Journal of Democracy, Volume 21, Number 2, April 2010, pp. 20-34 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/jod.0.0157
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the irony of success
Edward Aspinall
Edward Aspinall, senior fellow in the Department of Political and
Social Change at the Australian National University, is the author of
Islam and Nation: Separatist Rebellion in Aceh (2009).
Ten years ago, Indonesia looked like an unlikely candidate for demo-
cratic success. Born amid an economic collapse that has had few par-
allels in modern history, the country’s new democracy faced at least
three groups of potentially powerful spoilers. First, it inherited from
President Suharto’s regime (1967 –98) a strong military that played an
important political role and was seen by many observers as Suharto’s
natural successor. Second, in many regions of the country local actors
stoked ethnic, religious, and separatist violence, prompting a serious
crisis of “stateness” that, for a time, national leaders thought endangered
the country’s very survival. Finally, Islamist political forces—liberated
after decades of repression—became more assertive, with some groups
campaigning to transform Indonesia into an Islamic state, or at least to
amend the constitution to oblige Muslims to obey shari‘a.
Now, more than a decade after its democratic transition began, In-
donesia has dealt effectively with these challenges to democracy. The
military has retreated from the commanding heights of the political sys-
tem. The most severe communal conflicts have receded, and the worst
of the country’s separatist insurgencies—in the Sumatran province of
Aceh—has been resolved by a peace deal. Apart from a small fringe,
Islamist forces have been absorbed into the political mainstream and no
longer prioritize campaigning for a state based on shari‘a. The neutral-
ization of these threats has been accompanied by a host of other achieve-
ments—notably, a dramatic expansion of civil liberties, the emergence
of a flourishing and pluralistic media market, and freely contested multi-
party elections. The story of Indonesia’s democratic success, in a decade
that has witnessed worldwide democratic stagnation if not recession,
presents valuable lessons for other countries.
Journal of Democracy Volume 21, Number 2 April 2010
© 2010 National Endowment for Democracy and The Johns Hopkins University Press
Edward Aspinall
There is, however, an underside to Indonesia’s democratic accom-
plishments. The country has dealt with key challenges in ways that have
come with costs. Spoilers have been accommodated and absorbed into
the system rather than excluded from it, producing a trade-off between
democratic success and democratic quality. This trade-off has not been
an unfortunate side-effect of Indonesia’s democratic transition; rather,
it has been central to its dynamics, and even an important ingredient in
its success.
How and why this trade-off happened has much to do with the nature
of Suharto’s authoritarian regime, the path by which it was replaced, and
its legacies. Suharto ruled only partly through coercion. His regime also
tolerated a wide array of political and social forces so long as they gen-
erally obeyed the regime’s rules and did not challenge it directly. This
approach was reinforced by a system of patronage distribution from
which political players who commanded sizeable social constituencies
(for example, leaders of religious organizations) could benefit. The re-
sult was a widespread syndrome of “semi-opposition,” in which many
important political actors bridled at the regime’s authoritarian controls
yet adapted to the political culture of deal-making and compromise that
it fostered.1
This background had important consequences for the nature of the
democratic transition. Most of the key political forces and leaders who
oversaw the transition after 1998 were either direct participants or mar-
ginal semi-oppositional players in the Suharto regime’s power structure.
As a result, Indonesia’s democratic transition became like that of Brazil,
which as Guillermo O’Donnell once observed, “appeared to be the work
of a coalition of anyone and everyone.”2 In Indonesia, few sharp divid-
ing lines were drawn between the forces of the old regime and the new
democrats. Rather, the tendency was to accommodate and absorb all
major political forces, including those which, in other circumstances,
might have challenged the new democratic dispensation. Patronage and
corruption provided the oil to grease this arrangement.
Thus Indonesia’s four post-Suharto presidents have all had some sort
of background in the strongman’s New Order regime. Bacharuddin Jusuf
Habibie (1998–99) was a minister under Suharto and vice-president dur-
ing his final term in office; Aburrahman Wahid (1999–2001) was the
leader of a prominent Islamic organization under Suharto, famous for
the delight with which he played the regime’s factional politics; Mega-
wati Sukarnoputri (2001–2004), though she became a symbol of op-
position in the late New Order years, was also the leader of one of the
regime’s three tolerated political parties and still articulates a political
vision indelibly marked by that regime’s mindset. The current president,
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was a senior military officer in the late
Suharto years, albeit one with a reputation as a reformer.
More important, the cabinets of each of these presidents have repre-
22 Journal of Democracy
sented broad coalitions in which all, or nearly all, the major parties in
the national legislature were represented, and they also have included
a solid representation of former military officers and civilian bureau-
crats—the two principal pillars of the Suharto regime. The ministers
and their parties in turn often use cabinet posts as sources of patronage.
National and regional legislatures are arenas in which members of dif-
ferent parties collude to share spoils that derive from the state budget
and from business lobbyists.
Such phenomena have produced among scholars of Indonesia’s dem-
ocratic transition an almost obsessive interest in highlighting the degree
to which authoritarian and corrupt forces have seized the new demo-
cratic institutions, giving rise to a distinctive range of terms to describe
the results: “collusive democracy,” “patrimonial democracy,” “patron-
age democracy,” and so on.3 Whichever term one prefers, they all point
to the manner in which Indonesian democracy has proven able to ab-
sorb, accommodate, and serve the interests of powerful elite groups,
to the detriment of democratic quality. What the analysts sometimes
neglect, however, is that this absorptive capacity has contributed greatly
to the stability and achievements of the democratic transition.4 Both the
achievements and the costs are evident in the way that Indonesian de-
mocracy has neutralized its three main potential spoilers—the military,
ethnoregional elites, and militant Islamism.
Buying Off the Military
Viewed in retrospect, perhaps the greatest achievement of Indonesian
democratization has been the effective sidelining of the military from
the commanding heights of political power. It was conventional wisdom
among Indonesia specialists in the 1990s that the military would play
a central role in any post-Suharto polity. The armed forces had been
central to the Suharto regime for decades. Serving military officers oc-
cupied key posts in the cabinet, the bureaucracy, and the legislature.
The doctrine of dwifungsi (“dual function”), implemented when Suharto
came to power, reserved for the military a sociopolitical role in addition
to its role of providing national defense. Its territorial command struc-
ture distributed troops throughout the country as part of a hierarchical
structure that shadowed civilian government at every level, allowing the
military to intervene in routine affairs of government from top to bot-
tom on a daily basis. And, of course, the military provided the coercive
muscle power that the regime needed to repress its critics.
After Suharto’s regime collapsed in 1998, this situation changed rap-
idly. The senior officer corps suffered a crisis of political confidence.
Many of the street protests that accompanied the regime change took a
strongly antimilitary tone, and officers saw in them vivid evidence that
the military’s reputation as an institution had been damaged by political
Edward Aspinall
engagement. In response, they declared a “new paradigm” according to
which the military would withdraw from direct involvement in political
affairs: The police forces were separated from the armed forces and giv-
en primary responsibility for maintaining domestic security; the practice
of allowing serving officers to occupy posts in the civilian bureaucracy
was halted; and the seats in national and local parliaments reserved for
military officers were phased out by 2004.
But another important part of this story was the reluctance of the ci-
vilian government to intrude on certain core military prerogatives, out of
fear of antagonizing the institution. The military was eased rather than
forced out of power, in a process marked by an urge to accommodate the
military as much as to reform it. Thus little progress has been made in
two key areas of military reform. One has serious consequences for the
quality of Indonesia’s democracy, and the other constitutes a potential
threat to its future survival.
The first area is the culture of impunity that, to a large degree, the
military continues to enjoy. Indonesia has failed to punish perpetrators
of gross human-rights violations that occurred during the Suharto years
or even seriously to examine these events. At the peak of the post-Suhar-
to reforms, Indonesia’s legislature passed new laws that allowed it to es-
tablish special ad hoc human-rights courts to try old cases and to set up
new human-rights courts to try future ones. Several ad hoc courts were
established, and trials were held for officers implicated in past abuses—
notably, a 1984 massacre of protestors in the Tanjung Priok region of
Jakarta and the violence that preceded and accompanied the 1999 East
Timor independence referendum. There were even initial convictions,
but all were eventually overturned on appeal. In some cases, crowds of
uniformed soldiers attended the trials in what must have been intimidat-
ing displays of force for the judges. Other inquiries have been vetoed by
Indonesia’s parliament, the People’s Representative Council (DPR).
The overall result is that the military’s role in handling civilian dis-
sent is much reduced, but when its soldiers do act against civilians they
sometimes still behave brutally, and they run little risk of serious pun-
ishment. Thus when the military was given emergency powers and or-
dered to eliminate separatist insurgents in Aceh in 2003 and 2004, there
were widespread abuses against civilians. The military claimed that it
was investigating and punishing soldiers who committed breaches. Yet
these processes were never seriously monitored, and it is likely that,
at best, only very light punishments were given. A series of abuses in
the province of Papua (formerly called Irian Jaya) has also gone almost
entirely unpunished. In other cases, punishments have been imposed but
were very light: For example, when Marines fired on a crowd of protest-
ing villagers during a land dispute in East Java in 2007, killing four of
them, fourteen of the Marines were tried but the heaviest penalty was a
three-year jail term and expulsion from the military. Equally important,
24 Journal of Democracy
the culture of impunity extends into other institutions. Amnesty Interna-
tional recently concluded that “the use of torture and other ill-treatment
by police is still widespread in Indonesia.”5
The second failure has been in the pursuit of institutional reforms that
would eliminate remaining reserve domains of military power. Many ex-
amples could be cited here, including the failure to civilianize the defense
bureaucracy, with the result that, as one observer pithily remarked, “The
only two people not wearing military uniforms in the Ministry of De-
fense are the minister and his driver.”6 Attempts to reduce the military’s
involvement in business—an involvement which acts as both a facilitator
of and incentive for political involvement, especially at the local level—
have largely stalled, although the military budget has nearly tripled from
US$1.2 billion in 2003 to $3.5 billion in 2009. The main failing, howev-
er, has been successive governments’ inability to dismantle the military’s
territorial system. According to military officers, this system maintains
an essential early-warning system against internal security threats; how-
ever, it also provides an infrastructure for the military to monitor and,
should it someday so choose, to intervene in civilian politics.
The result is that although the military is no longer an important di-
rect player in day-to-day high politics, it retains the institutional ca-
pacity and the mindset that could allow it to intervene in the future.
The 2006 coup in nearby Thailand demonstrates that, even in apparently
consolidated democracies where the military has been sidelined, army
officers can take advantage of political turmoil to reassert themselves.
Indonesia’s post-Suharto experience presents its own salutary lesson in
this regard: Efforts to reform the military reached their high point early
in the rule of President Abdurrahman Wahid, when a plan to gradually
dismantle the territorial structure was announced. But Wahid’s chaotic
approach to governance, by which he alienated most parties in the na-
tional legislature, triggered a political crisis. In response, the president
tried to enlist the military to back him against parliament, and shelved
his plans for major military reform as a payoff.
Since Wahid was removed from office in 2001, those plans have never
effectively been revived. Neither the major parties in the legislature nor
successor governments have reopened the issue of abolishing the territo-
rial structure. During this period, Indonesia has also experienced demo-
cratic stability, providing few opportunities for military intervention.
Yet as Marcus Mietzner concludes in his important study of the military
in Indonesia’s democratic transition, “Indonesia still cannot rely on suf-
ficiently strong institutional mechanisms to fend off possible military
interference in politics in the future.”7 Indonesia has all but eliminated
the military’s role in high politics, but future crises—whether precipi-
tated by economic problems, electoral paralysis, or some other cause—
could see a return to military intervention. Persuading Indonesia’s mili-
tary to accede to democratization by refraining from encroachment on
Edward Aspinall
its core interests may have been an effective strategy in the short term,
but its long-term viability remains in doubt.
Resisting Disintegration
For many Indonesians, the most shocking feature of their country’s
democratic transition was the wave of communal unrest that accompa-
nied it. After (and in some cases even before) the collapse of the Su-
harto regime in 1998, a series of bloody local conflicts broke out. Taken
together, they caused approximately 19,000 deaths8 (although nobody
knows the exact figure), and provoked grave fears that Indonesia was
on the verge of a process of national disintegration similar to that which
destroyed Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.
Most of the violence was highly localized. In some areas—notably, in
Kalimantan—local “indigenous” groups launched pogroms against mi-
grants from other parts of Indonesia. Elsewhere (Ambon, North Maluku,
and Poso, in Central Sulawesi), there were virtual small-scale civil wars
between rival religious and ethnic communities. In East Timor, Papua, and
Aceh, long-suppressed separatist sentiments emerged explosively, leading
to a UN-supervised independence referendum in East Timor, a powerful
insurgency in Aceh, and a more peaceful but determined pro-independence
movement in Papua. Very worryingly for some Indonesians, there were
early signs of separatist sentiment in provinces where it had never been
present historically, such as the oil-rich province of Riau in Sumatra.
In each of these conflicts, local people vented long-suppressed griev-
ances about excessive central government control and neglect or viola-
tion of local interests. Most of these conflicts also involved competition
among local elites for control of local government and the access to
patronage resources that this provided. Although the violence was local-
ized, the popular grievances and the elite competition were not: In every
region throughout the country, there was vigorous competition among
local elites to capture state power, often accompanied by a revival of
local ethnic consciousness.
A decade on, Indonesia has survived intact. Rather than leading to
a fiery spiral that could have consumed the nation, most of the violent
conflicts of the early post-Suharto years have sputtered out or been ex-
tinguished by peace deals. Interregional conflict—such as the tension
between Java and the “Outer Islands” that marked the early years of
Indonesian independence—has hardly featured as an element in national
politics. Secessionist movements have been defused. There were many
reasons for this outcome, not all of which can be explored here, but three
deserve particular note.
First, the design of the country’s electoral system was important.
Since 1999, Indonesia has used variants of proportional representation
in which members of parliament are elected from multimember districts.
26 Journal of Democracy
Proposals by some reformers who wanted to improve accountability of
elected representatives to voters by introducing single-member districts
have always been rejected, often on the grounds that such an approach
would introduce a winner-take-all attitude that could endanger Indone-
sia’s ethnic and religious pluralism. Yet one important safeguard was
built into this system: In order to regis-
ter for and run in elections, parties had
to show that they had a broad national
presence with functioning branches
in a large proportion of the country’s
provinces and districts (the administra-
tive divisions immediately below the
level of provinces), effectively exclud-
ing local political parties.
The exclusion of local parties has
prevented Indonesia’s national insti-
tutions from becoming a battleground
for organized regional and ethnic inter-
ests, and limited the extent to which local institutions can be captured by
ethnically exclusivist movements. At the same time, proportional rep-
resentation has produced a highly fragmented party system in which no
single party is able to dominate. In 1999, the largest five parties won a
combined total of 87 percent of the vote; in 2004, the biggest seven won
about 80 percent; and in 2009, the top nine together won a little over 80
percent. When added to the patrimonial style of politics inherited from
the Suharto years, this fragmentation has created a climate of cross-
party alliance-building, flexibility, opportunism, and deal-making that,
while not conducive to effective governance, is positive for preserving
pluralism and preventing the escalation of communal tensions.
Second, and most important, was the far-reaching policy of decentral-
ization of political and financial power that the Habibie government began
in 1999. In a “big bang” decentralization that is often described as one of
the most dramatic the world has seen, considerable political powers were
devolved to the country’s districts, along with control over a good part
of the state budget. Devolution had the effect of blunting regional-center
tensions, as local political elites and activists immediately shifted from
protesting about the depredations of the central government to organizing
to capture political power at the local level. It also delivered a blossoming
of local democracy that is rightly lauded as one of the signature achieve-
ments of Indonesia’s reform. Around the country, local political office is
now vigorously contested in open elections, and local governments make
many of the key decisions about how best to use local resources.
This process has not been without tension. Early on in the transition
especially, some local contests for political power triggered violence, with
local elites mobilizing followers along ethnic lines to help them gain pow-
Decentralization has
greatly expanded the
capacity of the politi-
cal structure to absorb,
neutralize, and buy off
potential democratic
Edward Aspinall
er. Yet by displacing political and resource competition to the regions,
decentralization also fragmented it, reducing its impact as a first-order
problem threatening the survival of the state. Moreover, the same inclusiv-
ist impulses that govern national politics came to determine local political
dynamics too. Cross-party coalitions and opportunistic alliances are the
order of the day, and in direct elections for subnational executive office, lo-
cal politicians in ethnically plural districts and provinces have learned that
they need to build cross-communal alliances if they want to win.
But there, too, lies the rub. As has by now been repeatedly demon-
strated in a burgeoning scholarly literature on Indonesia’s local politics,
decentralization also fostered predatory behavior at the local level. Lo-
cal parliaments became sites of corrupt deal-making in which legislators
colluded with officials and businesspeople to siphon off money from
the state budget and to direct contracts and licenses to business allies.
In some out-of-the-way districts, decentralization has produced a phe-
nomenon akin to the “bossism” that characterizes neighboring countries
such as the Philippines and Thailand, with local clans governing their
districts like virtual private fiefdoms. “Money politics,” in the form of
vote-buying and bribery of electoral officials, has particularly damaging
effects on the integrity of electoral processes at the local level.
These processes have been exemplified in the proliferation of new dis-
tricts, a process known in Indonesia as pemekaran or “blossoming.” When
Indonesia democratized, it had 341 districts. By late 2009, the figure stood
at about 500. Often the publicly stated rationale for creating a new district
out of an old one is to provide an administrative home for a local ethnic or
subethnic group who live in a concentrated area, and to ameliorate tension
with other groups. The underlying motive, however, is often to provide a
slice of patronage resources for the bureaucrats, political bosses, or net-
works that dominate these areas. A new district provides new seats in a
new legislature, a new district budget, new opportunities to appoint family
or friends to civil-service positions, and lucrative construction contracts to
build new government buildings. Indeed, sometimes pemekaran is driven
by a candidate who loses election for political office in one district and so
lobbies for a new district to be carved out of the old one.
In short, decentralization has greatly expanded the capacity of the
political structure to absorb, neutralize, and buy off potential democratic
spoilers. Virtually every locally influential political player can hope to
be a winner in Indonesia’s new local politics, due to the inclusivist and
collusive pattern that predominates. Even losing candidates in races to
become provincial governor or district head usually have political party
allies with seats in local parliaments through whom they gain consola-
tion prizes in the form of construction contracts, land deals, bureau-
cratic appointments, or other benefits. For a time at least, if that failed
to satisfy them, they could also hope to create districts where they could
dominate. Because many of these political bosses draw on ethnic con-
28 Journal of Democracy
stituencies, these arrangements help to diminish communal tension by
drawing ethnic elites into the web of patronage distribution.
Third, in areas that experienced high levels of violent conflict during
the transition years, peace deals have been cemented by the distribution
of patronage. This pattern of “patrimonial peace,” as I have called it
elsewhere, has been most dramatic in the province of Aceh.9 The site of
Indonesia’s bloodiest post-Suharto separatist insurgency, this region has
become almost miraculously peaceful since 2005, when the guerrillas of
the Free Aceh Movement signed a peace agreement in Helsinki to bring
their separatist war to an end. Crucial to their decision was the granting
of concessions by the Indonesian government that allowed them to com-
pete for power at the local level: What cinched the deal was a clause al-
lowing local political parties in Aceh, the only place in Indonesia where
this exception to the national legal framework applies. Former guerrilla
leaders or their close allies have now been elected as the governor and
as heads of 10 of the province’s 23 districts; they have also achieved a
near-majority in the provincial parliament and are the largest party in 16
of 23 district parliaments. Yet despite their past rebellion having been
partly motivated by grievances about corruption and neglectful govern-
ment, some former guerrillas since coming to power have been implicat-
ed in the predatory practices that they had previously condemned. Tell-
ingly, many have almost overnight transformed themselves into wealthy
construction contractors. Without skills or experience in construction,
they have nonetheless been able to get government-funded construction
contracts by drawing on their new political connections.
Two other peace deals that helped to end communal violence in Poso
and Maluku, respectively, have also been accompanied by the distribu-
tion of construction contracts and access to similar patronage resources
to leading figures from the previously warring sides. A special autonomy
law and direct elections in Papua, while being far less successful at ame-
liorating separatist sentiment, have to a large degree succeeded in divert-
ing the local indigenous elite of bureaucrats and aspiring politicians away
from supporting independence (as they had in 1999–2000) and toward
competition for patronage through elections and pemekaran.
In many respects, Indonesia’s story is a dramatic and even inspiring
testament to the capacity of democracy to curb ethnic and separatist con-
flicts. Indonesia is a supremely diverse society that has largely resolved
the serious communal violence that threatened its early democratic tran-
sition. Yet it was the style of democracy as much as its form that was
important in achieving this outcome. Instrumentalist analyses see ethnic
conflicts as caused by the ambitions of communal elites who mobilize
their followers to pursue material gain and political office. Indonesia has
no shortage of ambitious and potentially violent ethnic elites, but its inclu-
sivist and patronage-based form of democracy means that many of these
elites can achieve their goals without having to resort to violence. The
Edward Aspinall
effects on conflict amelioration have been positive; the impact on corrup-
tion control and improving government performance has not been.
Absorbing Islamism
Indonesia also presents powerful lessons about the capacity of demo-
cratic rule to tame Islamism. The Suharto regime had repressed Isla-
mist movements that campaigned for the establishment of an Islamic
state. During the early years of the transition to democracy, such forces
emerged into the public sphere and challenged the secular-nationalist
assumptions that had long governed Indonesian political life. Several
parties campaigned on an Islamic-state platform in the 1999 elections,
and in the subsequent parliamentary debates they tried to introduce
clauses into the constitution that would have made obedience to shari‘a
an obligation for all Muslims. On the streets, a more militant and violent
fringe emerged, with some groups condemning democracy as an alien
and Western-inspired imposition.
In fact, the potential of Islamism to dominate the Indonesian politi-
cal scene, much less to threaten its new democracy, was never great.
The majority currents in Indonesian Islam, represented by Indonesia’s
two great Islamic social organizations, the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama
and the modernist Muhammadiyah, are politically accommodationist and
moderate. During the New Order years, their leaders compromised with
the regime and proclaimed their loyalty to Pancasila, the state philoso-
phy that held that “Belief in One God,” rather than Islam, was a core
principle. After Suharto fell, the leaders of these organizations sponsored
pluralist-oriented but Islamic-based political parties that tried to reach
beyond their core constituencies to attract Chinese Indonesians, Chris-
tians, and other minorities. Moreover, Islamic politics in Indonesia is a
minority rather than a majority tendency: The vote for all Islamic-based
parties, including both Islamists and pluralists, was 36 percent in 1999
and 37.5 percent in 2004; it dropped sharply to 29 percent in 2009.
In part, this decline was a product of the way in which Indonesia’s
dominant political style has affected Islamic politics. Most Islamists
in Indonesia are more interested in sharing in the fruits of power than
overthrowing it. In Indonesia’s early transition, the two most important
Islamist parties were the United Development Party (PPP), one of only
three parties allowed to participate in the tightly controlled elections of
the New Order period, and the much smaller and ostensibly more pu-
ritanical Moon and Star Party (PBB). Both PPP and PBB proclaimed
themselves in favor of reorganizing Indonesia’s political, legal, and so-
cial order in line with shari‘a, although PPP was always more pragmatic
and less insistent than PBB. Both parties then went through the motions
of advocating inclusion of a reference to shari‘a in the constitution in a
debate that they knew they would lose. Their leaders soon proved much
30 Journal of Democracy
more adept, however, at staking a claim to participation in government
and enjoying the perks that this afforded them. Despite their claims to
religious morality, leaders of these parties have included some of the
most incompetent and corrupt cabinet ministers of the new democratic
Indonesia. M.S. Kaban, the current chairman of PBB, for example, has
been linked to a string of high-profile corruption cases. Neither party has
fared well electorally, with PBB’s vote fluctuating around 2 percent, and
PPP’s declining from 10.7 percent in 1999 to 5.3 percent a decade later.
The fate of these two parties reflects a broader two-part political dy-
namic that has produced, one decade into Indonesia’s political transition,
a striking absence of a militant Islamist voice in electoral politics. No
political party that openly proclaims—or at least emphasizes—a goal of
dramatically overhauling Indonesia’s social and political system in line
with shari‘a now represents a significant force. Two pressures have con-
tributed to this outcome. The first comes from below, with polls repeat-
edly showing that voters are more interested in economic and welfare is-
sues than in religiosity. The second involves cooptation and absorption
from above. The first is a product of democracy itself, the second, of the
particular variety of democracy practiced in Indonesia.
The clearest illustration of this dual dynamic is the evolution of the
Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). This party was born out of a campus
movement inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East. Its
members pursued an incrementalist approach, hoping first to develop
a true Islamic understanding and an all-encompassing Islamic lifestyle
among the members of its study groups, then to gradually Islamize so-
ciety through good works and dakwah (proselytization); and only then,
at some unspecified time in the future, to Islamize the state itself. When
the party made its electoral debut in 1999 (then it was known as PK, the
Justice Party), it offered something that was otherwise virtually absent
in Indonesia: an ideologically cohesive, disciplined, and programmatic
party. Yet having won only 1.4 percent of the vote that year, PKS also
aspired to be more mainstream and influential. To that end, it decided
to deemphasize its Islamist image and broaden its appeal. In the 2004
elections, it campaigned as being “clean and caring,” stressing the repu-
tation that many of its members enjoyed for incorruptibility, the social
services that the party provided, and its plans for economic develop-
ment, improved social welfare, and governance reform. It succeeded,
dramatically increasing its share of the vote to 7.3 percent.
This stronger legislative result gave it greater weight in national poli-
tics. It took three posts in President Yudhoyono’s first cabinet, and en-
dorsed candidates in gubernatorial and mayoral races around the coun-
try, winning some key positions. Yet the absorption of the PKS into the
political mainstream also did much to blunt its image. Among Islamists,
including some of its core supporters, the party’s new orientation—sym-
bolized by its declaration that it was an “open party”—prompted fears
Edward Aspinall
that it was losing sight of its Islamization goals. On campuses, the party
has begun to lose ground to the more militant Hizbut Thahrir (Party
of Liberation), which condemns democracy and does not participate in
elections. More significantly, the “party’s ‘clean’ and reformist image
has been tarnished by several of its prominent figures being implicated
in corruption scandals,” and some of its candidates for local executive
office have been of “doubtful probity.”10 Such developments produced
a decline of the PKS’s electoral attractiveness as an outsider party con-
cerned with cleaning up corruption. In 2009, the party’s vote increased
only slightly, to 7.9 percent, far short of its goal of 20 percent.
Superficial Islamization
The absorption of Islamist political forces into Indonesia’s governing
institutions and the political mainstream has been accompanied by a par-
tial Islamization of the public face of politics and of social policy. This
process has partly been driven by ostensibly secular-nationalist parties
and leaders seeking to win support from pious voters and Islamic social
organizations. Islamist leaders now working from within state structures
have played their part too, however. Some Indonesian Muslim leaders
speak of Indonesia becoming a “Muslim democracy,” comparable to the
Christian democracy that they believe predominates in the West. Some
of the implications of this trend have been negative, if not for democracy
itself, at least for pluralism. For instance, the government failed to protect
members of an Islamic sect, Ahmadiyah, when they were violently at-
tacked by Islamist groups, and in 2008 it promulgated a decree prohibiting
Ahmadis from promoting their beliefs. In the same year, the parliament
passed an antipornography law that bans a wide variety of objects and
actions “which contain obscenity or sexual exploitation which violates
the moral norms in society”—a broad definition that many artists, intel-
lectuals, and members of religious minorities fear could be used to restrict
artistic expression and criminalize minority cultural practices. In some
regions, local legislatures have passed even more restrictive shari‘a-in-
spired regulations imposing dress restrictions, curfews for women, stricter
Islamic education requirements, and the like. Former PBB chairperson
Yusril Ihza Mahendra, when he was minister for justice and human rights
and, later, state secretary, talked about revising Indonesia’s criminal code
to ensure it contained more elements derived from Islamic law.
Such developments arguably point to the early stages of a long-term
incremental struggle to Islamize the state from within. Overall, Indone-
sia is certainly not experiencing a process of “shari‘a-ization by stealth,”
as some alarmist commentators suggest. State-sponsored religious con-
servatism lags far behind countries like Pakistan or even neighboring
Malaysia. So far, the main effect of the cooptation of Islamic political
forces has been to blunt their Islamic goals by integrating these forces
32 Journal of Democracy
into the system of patronage-based democracy and compelling them to
compete for votes from a public that values performance more than pi-
ety. In the longer term, however, a gradual erosion of pluralism driven
by forces inside government has now become a possibility in a way that
it never was previously.
The Price of Success
Assessments of Indonesian democracy are often starkly contrasting.
The international media, foreign governments, and Indonesia’s own lead-
ers frequently laud the country as a democratic success story, praising it for
having institutionalized democratic freedoms, for having rolled back the
military, and for having kept radical Islam in check. Yet much of the schol-
arly literature, as well as commentary by Indonesian intellectuals and civil
society activists, is full of gloomy assessments of Indonesia’s low demo-
cratic quality, the capture of its democratic institutions by self-serving and
authoritarian elites, the pervasiveness of corruption, and so on.
Both characterizations are correct. Indeed, they are intimately con-
nected. The success of Indonesia’s democracy and its poor quality are
two sides of the same coin. It was precisely by achieving a low-quality
outcome that Indonesian democratization proceeded so smoothly. Key
elites and potentially disruptive political forces such as the military
were not starved out of Indonesia’s new democracy. Instead, they were
all given a piece of the democracy pie, reducing their incentive to resist
and challenge the system from the outside. The price of this approach
was that the potential spoilers were empowered to undermine the quality
of Indonesian democracy from within and, more important, that patron-
age and corruption became means by which they—and everybody else
who counted—were brought into the system.
The accommodation of spoilers and established elites produced a
relatively smooth transition to democracy once the initial breakthrough
was achieved in 1998. The transition became violent in some regions,
but in most such places new dispensations were arrived at to accom-
modate local communal elites. At the national level, early fears in some
quarters that there would be a repeat of the massive blood-letting that
accompanied Indonesia’s previous regime change (the demise of Presi-
dent Sukarno’s Guided Democracy and the rise of Suharto’s New Order
in 1965–66, when 500,000 alleged communists and their sympathizers
were killed), were not realized. Ideological conflict never became bitter
enough at the national level, and a winner-take-all dynamic was avoided
by the design of the electoral and party system and by the capacity of the
new political system to absorb all political forces.
The trade-off between democratic success and democratic quality was
arguably worth it. Not only did Indonesia avoid nationwide social vio-
lence during the transition, but it also successfully forestalled attempts
Edward Aspinall
by spoilers to destroy its new democracy, and it succeeded in building
a functioning procedural democracy that is arguably the global demo-
cratic success story of the last decade. Even if they have not been much
emphasized in this essay, Indonesia has made great strides in many areas
of its democratic life, now having an open and plural political system
that makes it the envy of many of its neighbors.
Moreover, this is arguably a story about sequencing. Up to 2004, the
thrust of reform efforts was to establish new democratic institutions.
Since then, Indonesia has moved into a phase of grappling with a series of
second-tier reforms that aim to lock in its democratic success by improv-
ing governance. This has been evident above all in the dramatic work of
the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), which has busted open
a large number of corruption cases involving legislators, ministers, and
other senior officials, delighting the public by broadcasting wiretaps of
some of their more sordid dealings. A new Constitutional Court has made
important decisions that have extended political rights and resolved po-
tentially serious deadlocks, including in the administration of elections.
In regional government elections, there is a high turnover rate of about
40 percent, with voters showing that they will not hesitate to oust local
government heads whom they view as corrupt or incompetent.
But in a democratic system where “anyone and everyone” still has a
stake, the dangers of erosion from within are real. Despite the reformist
rhetoric of President Yudhoyono, his first term (2004–2009) saw few
achievements in deepening democratic reform. Much of the important
progress was instead made by institutions established as part of earlier
reforms, notably the KPK and the Constitutional Court. In some crucial
areas, such as security-sector reform, there was paralysis. And for every
success, there has been a sign of backlash—most dramatically demon-
strated in late 2009 by a major conspiracy involving senior police of-
ficers and their allies in the business and political elite to undermine the
KPK and even to frame two of its commissioners on corruption charges.
The ensuing scandal has shone a harsh light on the collusive and corrupt
patterns of behavior that infuse the law-enforcement agencies, and has
sparked fears among reformers of a backward slide toward the habits of
the authoritarian past. Meanwhile, conservative forces in the national bu-
reaucracy and legislature have periodically introduced bills that threaten
significantly to erode some of Indonesia’s new freedoms—most recently
a draconian state-secrets bill—and have been thwarted only by campaigns
by Indonesia’s still highly combative civil society and media.
Over the last five years, Indonesia has been fortunate in having a
president who values his public and global reputation as a democrat
and who has therefore not tried to undermine his country’s democratic
achievements. Indonesia has also enjoyed economic growth rates of
about 5 percent per year, helping its new democracy to stabilize. Yet
the legacies of a political transition that kept the old Suharto regime’s
34 Journal of Democracy
ruling elite and patrimonial governing style largely intact continue to
bedevil democratic governance. The signature theme of the protests that
overthrew Suharto in 1998 was condemnation of “corruption, collusion
and nepotism,” yet these patterns of behavior still infuse political life,
with serious consequences for how Indonesia’s democracy delivers for
ordinary people, and for how it is perceived by them. Poor governance is
often the midwife of authoritarian reversals, and while Indonesia has yet
to produce its Alberto Fujimori, Thaksin Shinawatra, or Vladimir Putin,
Indonesian democracy is not yet out of the danger zone.
The author would like to thank Marcus Mietzner for the discussions and input during the
writing of this article.
1. For elaboration of this argument, which draws on work by Juan Linz, see Edward
Aspinall, Opposing Suharto: Compromise, Resistance and Regime Change in Indonesia
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).
2. Guillermo O’Donnell, “Transitions, Continuities, and Paradoxes,” in Scott Main-
waring, Guillermo O’Donnell and J. Samuel Valenzuela, eds., Issues in Democratic Con-
solidation: The New South American Democracies in Comparative Perspective (Notre
Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 50.
3. These three labels are taken from, respectively, Dan Slater, “Indonesia’s Account-
ability Trap: Party Cartels and Presidential Power after Democratic Transition,” Indonesia
78 (October 2004): 61–92; Douglas Webber, “A Consolidated Patrimonial Democracy?
Democratization in Post-Suharto Indonesia,” Democratization 13 (June 2006): 396–420;
Gerry van Klinken, “Patronage Democracy in Provincial Indonesia,” in Olle Törnquist,
Neil Webster, and Kristian Stokke, eds., Rethinking Popular Representation (New York:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
4. In developing this argument, I acknowledge the influence of Howard Dick and
Jeremy Mulholland and their article “Slush Funds and Intra-Elite Rivalry: The State as
Marketplace,” in a volume entitled The State and Illegality in Indonesia (Leiden: KITLV
Press, forthcoming ) being edited by Gerry van Klinken and myself.
5. Unfinished Business: Police Accountability in Indonesia (London: Amnesty Inter-
national Publications, 2009), 26
6. Remark by Rizal Sukma at the Indonesia Update Conference, Australian National
University, Canberra, 9–10 October 2009.
7. Marcus Mietzner, Military Politics, Islam, and the State in Indonesia: From Tur-
bulent Transition to Democratic Consolidation (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian
Studies, 2009), 322.
8. Gerry van Klinken, Communal Violence and Democratization in Indonesia: Small
Town Wars (London: Routledge, 2007), 4.
9. Edward Aspinall, “Combatants to Contractors: The Political Economy of Peace in
Aceh,” Indonesia 87 (April 2009): 1–34.
10. Anthony Bubalo, Greg Fealy, and Whit Mason, Zealous Democrats: Islamism and
Democracy in Egypt, Indonesia and Turkey (Sydney: Lowy Institute, 2008), 50.
... (Aspinall, 2010;Buehler, 2010;Schulte Nordholt & van Klinken, 2007), consequently creating a circulation of elites at the local level (Grindle, 2009 social identity secured strategic and substantial positions within the government. Decentralization had ended their dominance. ...
... However, it indicates a predatory countenance at the local level (Aspinall, 2010). It has become a political space for developing new patronage networks throughout Indonesia in the aftermath of the bureaucratic authoritarian system (Hadiz, 2004;Silitonga et al., 2016). ...
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The current article aims to explore corruption at the local level. There are two main discourses that set the background for this study. First, corruption is considered a result of decentralization, which opened up the local political structure. Second, corruption happened as a result of a societal shift along the prismatic continuum. These two main discourses serve as the theoretical background in research to find the meanings behind the reality of perpetual corruption occurring at the local level. The research employed the theory of decentralization and a prismatic society approach as analytical tools along with a phenomenological approach. The study found linkages in decentralization as a new reason for the growth and development of corruption at the local level on account of the prismatic structure empowering elite rulers to replicate corrupt practices.
... Furthermore, political decentralisation to promote citizen welfare is worse when the district implements a direct election with a higher incidence of corruption, collusion, and nepotism. Studies by Hofman and Kaiser (2002), Aspinall andVan Klinken (2011), andChoi (2004) explain that direct election may increase corruption in local politics in Indonesia through money politics and nepotism. Thus, it may be no surprise that corruption could precipitate Indonesian poverty. ...
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This article contributes to research on the impact of decentralisation reforms on local and regional prosperity. Researchers argue that implementing decentralization reforms can encourage citizens to participate in policy making. To test the idea, this study examines the relationship between fiscal decentralisation, administrative autonomy, direct local elections, and citizen prosperity using the Indonesia Family Live Survey (IFLS) 2007. IFLS is a longitudinal survey that uses face-to-face interviews with adult Indonesians (N individuals = 29,000, N districts = 262). Using ordered logistic regression, we find that fiscal and administrative decentralisation increases the probability that citizens feel prosperous, while direct local elections do not appear to have this effect. This relationship is stronger when the decentralisation reform is conducted in a less-corrupt institutional environment. The findings suggest that decentralisation in the weak political system may improve local prosperity through the improved capacity of Indonesian districts to deliver public services rather than through the opportunities for citizens to participate in local elections
This study aims to reveal the factors caused by two political dynasties in Banten which have many similarities and reaped different results in local leader elections in Cilegon City and Serang Regency. The defeat of Ratu Ati Marliati in that election made the end of Aat Syafaat family domination in Cilegon City, meanwhile on the other hand the victory of Ratu Tatu Chasanah has perpetuated the domination of Chasan Sohib in Serang Regency. Therefore, in this way, the facts regarding the factors behind the failures and political triumphs of the two political dynasties will be obtained. This study used two theoretical approaches that also being the basis analysis of Ratu Ati Marliati's failure to maintain her political dynasty in Cilegon City, and the achievement of Ratu Tatu Chasanah in maintaining her political dynasty in Serang Regency and at the same time strengthening the dominance of Chasan Shohib family in Banten Province. One of them is Boundary Control Theory that was introduced by Edward L. Gibson (2012) for identifying how a political family maintains its power in a region. Boundary control theory illustrates that political elites (incumbents) in subnational authoritarianism attempt their best to exert influence towards local politics to defend, protect their jurisdiction from political pressure, and limit the access of local opposition to elite support and national resources.Keywords: Territorial Politics, Banten Political Dynasty, Local Leaders Election struggle 2020. AbstrakPenelitian ini bertujuan untuk mengetahui faktor-faktor yang menyebabkan dua dinasti politik di Banten yang memiliki banyak kesamaan menuai hasil yang berbeda dalam pemilihan kepala daerah di Kota Cilegon dan Kabupaten Serang. Kekalahan Ratu Ati Marliati telah mengakhiri kekuasaan keluarga Aat Syafaat di Kota Cilegon, sementara kemenangan Ratu Tatu Chasanah telah melanggengkan kekuasaan tras Chasan Sohib di Kabupaten Serang. Dengan demikian akan diperoleh informasi mengenai faktor di balik kegagalan dan kemenangan politik dua dinasti politik itu Penelitian ini akan menggunakan dua teori yang akan menjadi pijakan analisis terhadap kegagalan Ratu Ati Marliati dalam mempertahankan dinasti politiknya di Kota Cilegon, dan terhadap keberhasilan Ratu Tatu Chasanah dalam mempertahankan dinasti politiknya di Kabupaten Serang dan sekaligus mengukuhkan dominasi keluarga Chasan Shohib di Provinsi Banten. Salah satunya dengan menggunakan teori boundary control. Teori ini diperkenalkan oleh Edward L. Gibson (2012) berguna untuk mengidentifikasi bagaimana suatu keluarga politik mempertahankan kekuasaannya dalam suatu wilayah. Teori boundary control menggambarkan bahwa elite politik yang berkuasa (petahanan) dalam otoritarianisme subnasional berusaha semaksimal mungkin memberikan pengaruhnya dalam politik lokal untuk mempertahankan, melindungi yurisdiksi mereka dari tekanan politik, dan membatasi akses oposisi lokal pada dukungan elit dan sumber daya nasional.Kata kunci: Politik Teritorial, Dinasti Politik Banten, kontestasi Pilkada 2020
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In fewer than eight years Indonesia, the world's most populous majority Muslim country, has made a remarkable transition from an authoritarian to a democratic political system. Against heavy odds, and despite bleak prognoses that this process and the country itself would collapse, Indonesia has meanwhile developed many attributes of a consolidated democracy. As indicated by pervasive and endemic corruption, what has emerged in Indonesia, however, is a patrimonial democracy in which the rule of law is weak and the government's effective capacity to govern is limited. Although patrimonialism has deep roots in Indonesian political history, there are none the less growing signs that in particular electoral competition will ‘improve’ Indonesian democracy and push it in a more liberal direction. A new and rare Muslim democratic star may thus be rising in the Far East.
Based on a decade of research in Indonesia, this book provides an in-depth account of the military's struggle to adapt to the new democratic system after the downfall of Suharto's authoritarian regime in 1998. Unlike other studies of the Indonesian armed forces, which focus exclusively on internal military developments, Mietzner's study emphasizes the importance of conflicts among civilians in determining the extent of military involvement in political affairs. Analysing disputes between Indonesia's main Muslim groups, Mietzner argues that their intense rivalry between 1998 and 2004 allowed the military to extend its engagement in politics and protect its institutional interests. The stabilization of the civilian polity after 2004, in contrast, has led to an increasing marginalization of the armed forces from the power centre. Drawing broader conclusions from these events for Indonesia's ongoing process of democratic consolidation, the book shows that the future role of the armed forces in politics will largely depend on the ability of civilian leaders to maintain functioning democratic institutions and procedures. © 2009 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. All rights reserved.
Through close scrutiny of empirical materials and interviews, this book uniquely analyzes all the episodes of long-running, widespread communal violence that erupted during Indonesia's post-New Order transition. Indonesia democratised after the long and authoritarian New Order regime ended in May 1998. But the transition was far less peaceful than is often thought. It claimed about 10,000 lives in communal (ethnic and religious) violence, and nearly as many as that again in separatist violence in Aceh and East Timor. Taking a comprehensive look at the communal violence that arose after the New Order regime, this book will be of interest to students of Southeast Asian studies, social movements, political violence and ethnicity.
During the authoritarian New Order (1966-1998) Indonesia was thought unlikely to democratise. Yet today Indonesia is undoubtedly a democracy. Today it seems more pertinent to ask not why democracy is unlikely to succeed but why it seems so much more resilient than once thought. Even more important than asking who introduced democracy, is asking: who sustains it today? To answer that question we need to look beyond the narrow clique of national elites and learn how politics works for most Indonesians - not at the commanding heights but at the provincial level where most people live. For democracy may have been introduced in Jakarta in 1998 as part of an elite pact under popular pressure, and it may be secured by legislated electoral rules made in Jakarta, but it is practised with evident satisfaction by 150 million voting citizens in nearly five hundred districts around the country. This chapter consists of three parts. The first links empirical descriptions of Indonesian democracy to a literature on low quality democracies. The second tries to explain its shape with a broad-brush, exploratory and somewhat speculative societal analysis. The third looks for future directions in the quest for more substantial democracy.
Combatants to Contractors: The Political Economy of Peace in Aceh
  • Edward Aspinall
Edward Aspinall, "Combatants to Contractors: The Political Economy of Peace in Aceh," Indonesia 87 (April 2009): 1-34.
Zealous Democrats: Islamism and Democracy in Egypt
  • Anthony Bubalo
  • Greg Fealy
  • Whit Mason
Anthony Bubalo, Greg Fealy, and Whit Mason, Zealous Democrats: Islamism and Democracy in Egypt, Indonesia and Turkey (Sydney: Lowy Institute, 2008), 50.
Slush Funds and Intra-Elite Rivalry: The State as Marketplace, " in a volume entitled The State and Illegality in Indonesia (Leiden: KITLV Press, forthcoming ) being edited by Gerry van Klinken and myself. 5. Unfinished Business: Police Accountability in Indonesia
  • Jeremy Mulholland
Jeremy Mulholland and their article " Slush Funds and Intra-Elite Rivalry: The State as Marketplace, " in a volume entitled The State and Illegality in Indonesia (Leiden: KITLV Press, forthcoming ) being edited by Gerry van Klinken and myself. 5. Unfinished Business: Police Accountability in Indonesia (London: Amnesty International Publications, 2009), 26 6. Remark by Rizal Sukma at the Indonesia Update Conference, Australian National University, Canberra, 9–10 October 2009.