On 7 June 1999, Indonesians enjoyed their first truly democratic elections since 1955. Despite dire predictions to the contrary, they were largely peaceful. About 112 million votes were cast – 90% of eligible voters – at 250,000 polling stations around the country. A total of 48 parties contested the poll, 45 of them new, and Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) won the largest share of the vote, attracting 34% of the total. In second place came Golkar with 22%. This was a surprise to some foreign observers, given the bad press Golkar had received, but reflected the party’s links with the bureaucracy and a strong showing in the Outer Islands where ‘reformasi’ had had less of an impact. The three other parties to attract significant numbers of votes were the National Awakening Party (12%), the National Mandate Party (7%) and the United Development Party (10%).
Indonesia’s first taste of democracy since 1955 has led to profound changes in the character of both politics and politicians. In the past, MPs had no constituency as such and so were rarely bothered about the need to represent real people. They merely had to make sure they pleased the party bosses. Members of the new parliament, however, not only have responsibilities to their electorates, but are also likely to be much more outspoken. Because presidents will now have term limits (Suharto was in power for 32 years), this will confer greater power on parliament. As Dan Murphy said in mid-1999 and before the presidential elections, “the next president … will confront populist and legislative challenges like no one has faced since Megawati’s father and Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, dispensed with democracy 40 years ago” (FEER, 19.8.99).
Under former President Suharto, Golkar was, in effect, the state’s own party. All state employees were automatically members of Golkar, and during election campaigns the state controlled the activities of other parties. Not surprisingly, therefore, Golkar was able consistently to win over 60% of the votes cast in parliamentary elections, and controlled the Parliament (DPR) and the People’s Consultative Assembly. Even before Suharto’s resignation in 1998, there was the enduring sense that the tide of history was running against Golkar. The provinces where Golkar did least well were in the country’s heartland – like Jakarta and East Java. It was here, in Java, that Indonesia’s middle classes and ‘new rich’ were beginning to clamour for more of a say in how the country was run, and by whom. With Golkar’s loss of the elections of 1999 to the PDI-P, the party has come to accept a new and less central role in the country. In the past all bureaucrats were automatically members of Golkar and were expected to support and represent Golkar. This is no longer the case.
But despite the fact that the PDI-P won the 1999 parliamentary elections, there were commentators who did not think that Megawati, the party’s leader, would become president. Prior to the East Timor debacle, some feared that BJ Habibie would ally himself with one or two other parties and use Golkar to gain the presidency against the run of votes. That assumption was shattered when it became clear that the people of East Timor would vote for independence. But Habibie’s mistake was not that he failed to control the army and the militias, but that he was foolish enough to offer the East Timorese a referendum on independence in the first place.
In October 1999 the People’s Consultative Assembly voted for Indonesia’s new president – and it was a cliffhanger. Indonesians could watch – another first for the country – democracy in progress as their representatives lodged their preferences. It was a close contest between Megawati Sukarnoputri, the people’s favourite, and the respected Abdurrahman Wahid, an almost blind cleric and leader of the country’s largest Muslim association, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), and a master of the politics of appeasement; a quality which in the President of such a diverse nation can stymie progress and blunt his effectiveness. As it turned out, Wahid won by 373 votes to 313 as he garnered the support of Golkar members and many of those linked to Muslim parties. Initially, Megawati’s vociferous and easily agitated supporters rioted when they realized that their leader had been, as they saw it, robbed of her democratic entitlement. Wisely, Wahid asked Megawati to be his vice-president and she asked her supporters to calm down and return home. The election of Wahid and Megawati was, arguably, the best combination that could have been hoped for in the circumstances. It allied a moderate with a populist, and it kept army commander-in-chief General Wiranto out of the two leadership spots (although he was asked to join the cabinet). Wahid’s cabinet, announced a few days after the election, showed a desire to calm tensions and promote pragmatic leadership. Significantly, he included two Chinese in his cabinet (one, the critical finance minister), as well as one politician from Aceh and another from West Papua – the two provinces with the greatest secessionist inclinations. On his election to the presidency, four critical questions faced Indonesia’s new president. First, how to mend the economy; second, how to keep the country from disintegrating; third, how to promote reconciliation between the different racial and religious groups; and fourth, how to invent a role for the army appropriate for a democratic country entering the 21st century.
Indonesia has changed in other ways – although these changes could be reversed should the move towards democratization begin to falter. For a start, the judiciary and the press are increasingly independent. During the last few years of the Suharto era, hesitant steps towards greater press freedom were often followed by a crackdown on publications deemed to have crossed some ill-defined line in the sand. The independence of the judiciary was, if anything, an even more vexed issue. Political opponents of Suharto and his cronies could not expect a fair trial, and foreign businessmen found using the courts to extract payments from errant Indonesian businessmen and companies a waste of time. In 1997 a clerk at the Supreme Court was heard explaining to a litigant how Indonesia’s legal system worked: “If you give us 50 million rupiah but your opponent gives us more, then the case will be won by your opponent” (quoted in The Economist, 2000). This approach to legal contests may have the advantage of simplicity, but it hardly instilled a great deal of confidence that a case would be judged on its merits.
In the six months following Suharto’s resignation nearly 200 new publications were registered. The government under Habibie was rather more thick-skinned than its predecessor, and in June 1998 a law permitting the Information Ministry to ban any publication for criticizing the government was scrapped. This move towards greater press freedom in the post-Suharto era has meant a much more active, campaigning and, occasionally, sensationalist press – something that President Wahid has sometimes found rather harder to stomach than did Habibie.