The slow ending of Indonesia’s New Order (blog by Ward Berenschot)

Does democracy change people? How enduring are the traces of dictatorship in the attitudes and beliefs of people? These questions kept popping up during the campaign for Indonesia’s presidential elections. On July 9th Indonesians could choose their own president, for the third time since the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Joko Widodo would win. This ex-furniture trader had stolen people’s hearts with his combination of modesty and decisiveness, which had made him surprisingly effective during his terms as mayor of Solo and Governor of Jakarta. Even more importantly, Indonesians could finally elect someone who did not belong to the New Order, the authoritarian regime under Suharto.

Then his opponent, Prabowo Subianto, rose in the polls. This ex-general is the perfect exponent of Suharto’s New Order. As Suharto’s son-in-law he had fancied himself as his successor, until the street protests of 1998. Prabowo did everything to prevent Suharto’s fall. He organised riots and had pro-democracy demonstrators kidnapped. But when Suharto fell, Prabowo was dishonourably discharged and fled to Jordan.

But he came back. With money from his younger millionaire brother Hashim – himself a product of the New Order – Prabowo founded a new party, Gerindra, and build an impressive campaign machine. He promised to bring back the lost order and stability and he presented himself as someone who could be firm – tegas in Indonesian – in dealing with both chronic corruption and foreign companies. Prabowo managed to gain the support of almost all big political parties. It seemed that the old political elite looked to Prabowo to defend their privileges against further democratization. In that light it was probably not a coincidence that Prabowo promised to cancel direct elections.

Voters did not seem to mind. Prabowo quickly narrowed Jokowi’s lead in the polls. Suddenly the argument gained ground that Indonesia needs a military ruler, someone who is firm (tegas) enough to get things done. Prabowo supporters spread rumors that Jokowi was a closet Christian, Chinese and communist. It seemed to work. The elites backing Prabowo owned major newspapers and tv-stations, and their money was used to buy the support of village elites. In contrast, Jokowi’s campaign was disorganised. As his political parties failed to perform, Jokowi relied largely on volunteers who had to make do with a very small budget.

Prabowo’s popularity can partly be attributed to the chaos and corruption that accompanies Indonesia’s democratization process. The defects of Indonesia’s democracy – the vote buying, the collusion between big business and politics, its elitist nature – are generating nostalgia for the orderliness of the New Order. If you have lived in a dictatorship that reminded you day in day out of the importance of harmony, order and obedience, can you then find your bearings in a messy and conflict-ridden young democracy? For a moment it seemed like Indonesians would opt for a return to the New Order.

But Indonesia has changed. The barrage of paid propaganda, newspapers and local leaders – the staple of politics during the new order – turned out to be of limited use. Reliable quick counts found that on 9 april Jokowi had won 53 percent of the votes. At the time of writing the Indonesian election committee is still counting the votes. If this counting procedes fairly – which is far from certain – then Indonesia has rejected the New Order for a second time. And this time, not only Suharto is beaten. If Jokowi wins, a big blow is dealt to the power of old political establishment.

Such elections raise fascinating questions for researchers. A democracy is not ‘finished’ with the enactment of free elections. Democratisation is a slow process with many small steps. Some of these staps take place in people’s heads, when they shed their previous obedience and deference for assertiveness and independent thinking. How does that happen? How do these attitudes change? And conversely, why does the autoritarian new order maintain its allure for many Indonesians? Even if Jokowi is sworn in as president, Indonesia will still be controlled by a small and super rich political and economic elite. But Indonesia has taken a few important steps towards a more equitable distribution of power. Indonesians have shown that they are no longer easily swayed by their elite, however rich they may be.

No Comments

Post A Comment