#07 transition
Dewi Fortuna Anwar

Indonesia's 'Big Bang' Transformation

When authoritarian President Suharto resigned in 1998, he had governed Indonesia for more than 30 years. Today the country is often referred to as the third largest democracy in the world. In only 14 years, it established a democratic political system with a division of power and regional decentralization; civil society is strong and women are active in politics. To some, it still feels like a miracle.

Recently a European diplomat who had served in Indonesia nearly twenty years ago returned to Jakarta as his country's ambassador. Over lunch we caught up on news and reminisced about old times. When this friend left Indonesia President Suharto was at the height of his power, the New Order regime was well entrenched and the military was considered a permanent fixture of the Indonesian political landscape. As an old hand in Indonesia, my ambassador friend told me that he still cannot 'wrap his head' around all the changes that have taken place and which have transformed Indonesia from the country he once knew.

Indeed, Indonesia may be said to have undergone a big bang transformation, which has altered its political system from authoritarianism to a full-fledged democracy, though still a flawed one. Here I would like to touch briefly on four major areas of reform: the role of the military, relations between the key institutions of the state, central-regional relations and the role of civil society.

Miltary withdrawal from politics

The most striking change that has taken place in Indonesia in the past 14 years is undoubtedly the ending of the military's dual functions or 'dwi-fungsi' and the establishment of civilian supremacy over the military. Throughout the New Order period the military had a social-political function as well as a defence and security function. With 'dwi-fungsi' the military was omnipresent in Indonesian public lives – it dominated the executive and had large numbers of seats in the national and regional legislatures as well as being involved in business. The police were regarded as a junior branch of the military where the military was ultimately responsible for internal security.

With Indonesia's transition to democracy that started in 1998, the military was gradually phased out of politics and business. Active military personnel are now banned from taking public office, and if anyone from the military wishes to run for an elected position he or she must resign first. Since the 2004 general elections all members of the Parliament and Regional Council must be elected, so that the military no longer enjoys reserved seats in the legislatures.

Besides being removed from politics, the military has also been separated from the police. The military is now primarily responsible for national defence, while internal security is the responsibility of the police. The military can be called to assist the police, but that call has to be made by the government rather than at the discretion of military commanders. Although there is still some way to go for the military to become a truly professional defence force and achieve effective civilian oversight over the military, it is now quite inconceivable that the military could resume political power in Indonesia.

Separation of powers

The second most important transformation that has taken place is the clear separation of power between the three branches of the state: the executive, legislative and judiciary, ending the subordination of the latter two branches by the executive. While Indonesia's presidential system allows for a powerful executive, the Parliament has become equally powerful and is no longer just a rubber stamp like in the Suharto period. The judiciary is fully independent and the newly established Constitutional Court enables the public to seek judicial reviews of laws they regard as problematic. With the strong system of checks and balances that is in place, decision-making in Indonesia is now more difficult and time consuming. In a democracy, a participatory process is mandatory even if it means decision-making is less efficient than in an authoritarian system.

In Indonesia the political process has been made even more complicated by the unwieldy multi-party system in which no party has succeeded in obtaining a clear majority in Parliament. This has resulted in a presidential system with semi-parliamentary characteristics, manifested in a broad-based coalition Cabinet even though the President and Vice President were elected directly by popular votes. This is clearly a radical departure from the New Order period when Parliament was dominated by the government party, Golkar, and the military, while the Cabinet was filled with active high ranking military officers and bureaucrats.

Regional autonomy

The third major transformation is the devolution of power to the regions. The New Order was a highly centralised system of government in which most important decisions were made in Jakarta, leaving little room for local initiatives. Regional grievances against perceived domination and exploitation by Jakarta, including armed insurgencies in Aceh and Papua, led to the introduction of wide-ranging decentralisation policies. The restive provinces of Aceh and Papua have been given special autonomy at the provincial level. They are allowed to keep more of their revenues and adopt their local cultures in public lives, such as the implementation of elements of Islamic Sharia in Aceh. For the rest of Indonesia regional autonomy is implemented at the regency and mayoralty levels, with the aim of bringing public services closer to the people and strengthening local democracy.

Due to far-reaching regional decision-making, the central government now only has full authority over six areas, namely foreign policy, defence, the judiciary, religion and monetary and fiscal policies. Thus for people who were used to doing business under the New Order, who could wrap up a deal simply by getting the backing of a powerful general or a Suharto scion in Jakarta, today's highly decentralised Indonesia is undoubtedly bewildering. Power has not only been divided horizontally between the different branches of government, but also vertically between the central, provincial and district administrations.

Strong civil society

The fourth most visible change that has taken place since the collapse of Suharto's New Order is in the growing vibrancy of civil society. Indonesia has a lively press, one of the freest in Asia, in various forms of the media. Civil society organisations (CSO) are active in community development, advocacy and in providing policy alternatives. The labour unions are many and vocal. Public debates, noisy discourse and at times unruly demonstrations have become common features of Indonesia's political life. Indonesians are also avid users of new social media, and are currently listed as the world's fourth largest users of Facebook and Twitter who have a penchant for airing their views in public.

While it still has to work hard to consolidate its democracy, with the fundamental transformations that have taken place, Indonesia now is justly recognised as the third largest democracy in the world. Also worthy of note is the increasing role of women in politics, though the number of women in top positions is still well below that of men. With the ascendancy of Megawati Surkanoputri to the presidency in 2001, the debate about whether women could become top political leaders effectively ended. Since then more women have been elected as governors, regents, town mayors, and members of the national and regional legislatures.

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