Wed, 04 Nov 2015

The broad sequence of events that led to the fall of President Suharto and the rise of democracy in Indonesia are well known. But few of us know the details of that period like former coordinating minister for economy, finance and industry Ginandjar Kartasasmitra and former Harvard faculty member Joseph J. Stern.

Their book, "Reinventing Indonesia," shines a new light on that period, bringing forth a wealth of information about the times, while demonstrating how the actions of the period align with and inform the academic literature on democratization that has arisen over the past few decades. Both lead the reader to consider the implications of current events for the future of democracy in Indonesia.

The book begins with an overview of the New Order period to put the events of 1997 and thereafter in context. In the 1960s and 70s, President Suharto and his New Order government made an implicit bargain with the people: the regime would deliver social order and strong economic growth but also place limits on democracy and political freedom. This bargain worked well for many years, but the New Order was a victim of its own success.

As Samuel Huntington and others have pointed out, increasing incomes create new and different demands on rulers. By the mid-1990s, with the rise of a new middle class that did not live through the trauma of the early- and mid-1960s, demand was growing for a new social compact. This was intensified by the exposure of Indonesians to ideas from outside of the country that came from greater integration into the global economy. All that was needed was a spark to begin to set the whole house on fire.

As demonstrated in "Reinventing Indonesia," the economic crisis of 1997 was that spark. The crippling of the economy during that period and the ensuing unrest undercut the legitimacy of the government.

The book really hits its stride when discussing the events of 1997 and 1998. It provides an often first hand account of the economic and political crisis that led to the resignation of the president in 1998. Dealings with international institutions and foreign governments are described along with key actions and meetings that led to the end of the New Order and the beginnings of recovery and democratization. This includes the critical role that was played by president B.J. Habibie in the early post-Suharto period.

The portrait of President Habibie in the book is of a leader who, when he could have taken strong steps to consolidate power in an uncertain time, instead embraced a more open, participative, and democratic process.

Why was this the case? The book does not answer this directly but the picture painted by the authors is of a man who recognized times were changing and that Indonesia’s governance had to change as well. As noted in the book, President Habibie and the parliament “produce[d] 67 laws that formed the legal foundation for the establishment of strong political and economic institutions that are essential to the development of a democratic nation…”

The authors then show how the events of that period fall within the analytical framework of democratic transition as articulated by political scientists, including Huntington and Larry Diamond. A key issue is the consolidation of democracy which, for Indonesia, begins with the presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid. The turbulent years after his election in in 1999 to the the election of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono illustrate both the challenges that democracy in Indonesia faced and the resilience that it showed during that period. With an emphasis on the constitutional changes that helped to further institutionalize Indonesian democracy during that period, the authors continue to mix a first person narrative with keen insights into the application of the theoretical literature to the case of Indonesia.

Having applied this framework to the period of transition from 1997 to 2004, the book then turns that lens briefly on more recent developments in Indonesia. But that part of the story is still unfolding, leaving the reader to consider the implications of the past for the future.

The election of President Joko Widodo illustrates the continuing struggle for consolidation and expansion of democracy in Indonesia. As the authors note, there is a bit of Huntington’s authoritarian nostalgia in the country. But Joko showed in this campaign and his election victory that democratic forces continue to prevail.

That being said, one must wonder whether the current economic weakness in the country will fuel a backlash against this democratic leader. The government’s ability to deliver inclusive economic growth, provide leadership, maintain security, and fight corruption will be critical. In a still consolidating democratic system, failure in any of these areas can create challenges for the continued legitimacy of not just the current government but the entire system. "Reinventing Indonesia" provides us insights into how these forces have played out in the past, which can help us to understand how they may play out in the future.

Timothy Buehrer is chief of party at US-Asean Connectivity Through Trade and Investment (US-ACTI).