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Post-Reformasi Indonesia: The Age of Uncertainty

02 May 2018
By Professor Tim Lindsey AO FAIIA

Twenty years ago, the Soeharto era ended with reformation. Today’s post-Reformasi Indonesia is full of uncertainty, with profound implications for its foreign relations.

May 1998 was a watershed moment in Indonesian history. Soeharto’s 32 years of authoritarian rule ended as his bloated New Order regime collapsed amid the economic and political chaos triggered by the Asian Economic Crisis.

Over the next five years, elite survivors, oligarchs and newly-confident civil society leaders slowly negotiated a new democratic system with liberal ambitions. It drew on long-repressed but persistent aspirations for negara hukum (the rule of law) and human rights and opened politics, business and public discourse to a diverse range of voices.

Since then, Indonesia has defined itself by reference to those catalytic events, with the years since Soeharto generically referred to the Era Reformasi (the reformation era). Such is the resonance of the events of the turn of the century that the term is still used today, twenty years on, even though the spirit of radical reform that drove democratisation is now distant.

In fact, most Indonesian civil society champions would agree that Reformasi ended long ago, maybe a decade or even a decade and half ago. However, a new label to define what replaced Reformasi has not yet emerged and this reflects uncertainty among Indonesians about recent social and political change, and where their country is heading.

Some prominent critics of the government claim that, while electoral democracy seems entrenched, liberal democracy is under threat from populism and renewed conservativism.  For them, Indonesia seems to be sliding towards what they call the “Neo-New Order”.

Others say this is too harsh, arguing that the critical change that marked the end of Soeharto’s system, the retreat of the military from government to the barracks, has not been reversed. They also point to new governance institutions established post-Soeharto to combat the repression and corruption that characterised his regime, such as the Constitutional Court and the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK), as well the development of a diverse and vibrant civil society and a largely free, even boisterous, media.

They do so with increasingly difficulty, however: with rampant corruption perhaps Indonesia’s single biggest political issue, the KPK under constant attack from politicians and police, the Constitutional Court entangled in its own scandals, the press facing increased use of defamation laws that assist politicians and oligarchs and civil society under pressure from elite pushback.

“Neo-New Order” may not be the right label but it is clear enough that Reformasi is history. What is not so clear is where Indonesia will eventually land. Will liberal democracy bounce back? Will Indonesia’s resilient oligarchs finally complete their creeping takeover of government? Will Indonesia follow Malaysia, conceding political privilege to Islam and institutionalising intolerance? Or will the country just keep muddling through, as it has for most of this century?

The uncertainty this all creates is now one of the key characteristics of post-Reformasi Indonesia, and the source of much confusion and anxiety among ordinary Indonesians.  These tensions will only increase with local elections this year and next April’s national elections drawing closer. Negative campaigning—fake news and all—is already underway and expected to reach fever pitch in early 2019.

The elections will determine the patterns of power and patronage for the next five years, as they always do, but the campaigning will particularly intense because the presidential and legislative elections will be held together for the first time next year.

The likely outcome is still unclear, not least because of the disruptive influence of social media manipulation and the unpredictability of the many millions of young millennials who will be voting (half the population is under 40).  It is therefore hardly surprising that the 2019 elections are already overshadowing everything else in Indonesia public life, as the elite begin to jostle for position.

The uncertainty that dominates domestic Indonesian politics will have also profound implications for Indonesia’s foreign relations, not least because it comes precisely as Indonesia, poised on the cusp of middle-class status, begins to rise economically.

It does so despite unimpressive economic management. For all the rhetoric from Jakarta about being open for business, and regular announcements of reforms to facilitate foreign investment, the reality is that Indonesia remains fiercely protectionist. A small group of politically powerful oligarchs continue to dominate a highly uncompetitive economy that is a minefield for foreign investors. This is particularly true at the local level, where where oversight from the national government is weak and rent-seeking behaviour is common among local administrations.

But Indonesia may prosper nonetheless, with rating agencies claiming that even if it simply maintains its current 5 per cent GDP growth, Indonesia will soon achieve global economic clout. Certainly, its leaders believe predictions that by 2030 Indonesia will be among the seven largest economies in the world and that this will transform it in the way that rapid growth transformed China. This, combined with Indonesia’s strategic geographic expanse and huge population (by then approaching 300 million), will make it a global player, they think.

What does this mean for Australia? In 2008, at the height of the Yudhoyono administration, when relations with Australia were as good as they get, as they put it, Andrew McIntyre and Douglas Ramage wrote a perceptive paper titled “Seeing Indonesia as a Normal Country”. In it, they argued that Indonesia had committed to a liberal democratic path and participation in the international community. Pluralism, they said, was “the bedrock fact of Indonesian society”, and Australia needed to rethink dated Soeharto-era attitudes to Indonesia.

Ten years later, another rethink is necessary. Indonesia’s commitment to electoral democracy remains strong but support for liberal democracy is less certain and concern for international opinion much diminished. In fact, expectations of Indonesia’s rise are already fueling experiments with populism, xenophobia and regional assertiveness (triggered to a great extent by virulent Sinophobia).

Likewise, pluralism—and, in particular, the status of religious, ethnic and social minorities—face major challenges from rising religious intolerance. The so-called conservative turn—the growing influence of Islamist hardliners, repressed by the Soeharto regime for most of his long rule—is fracturing the national consensus on pluralism. In fact, these groups now seem to be emerging as Indonesia’s Alt Right.

The massive rallies led by Islamist groups that led to the electoral defeat and then jailing for blasphemy of Basuki Ahok Tjahaja Purnama, the Christian ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta, shocked many Indonesians as much as they did foreign observers. Worse still, advocates of pluralism and minority rights in Indonesia feel intimidated and, by their own admission, are beginning to self-censor. The apology forced by Islamist critics from a weeping Sukmawati Soekarnoputri, a daughter of the first president, for a poem she wrote praising traditional Indonesian culture over Islamic culture will only increase the chilling effect of the conservative turn on public discourse.

All this means that Australia will need another rapid recalibration of its expectations about Indonesia as the country contemplates a very uncertain post-Reformasi future that may well prove to be much less liberal and less welcoming of foreign engagement.

We need to be aware that, ironically, even as it becomes a wealthier, middle class society, Indonesia’s always-turbulent relations with its neighbours may prove to be even more difficult in the decade ahead than at any time since last century.

Tim Lindsey is Malcolm Smith Professor of Asian Law, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne. He attended the 4th Indonesia-Australia Dialogue on 8-10 April 2018 organised by the Australian Institute of International Affairs with the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and PwC. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.