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Indonesian democracy: The myth of '98

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27 June 2011 10:01

The idea that Indonesia might be a model for Egypt's emerging democracy has been discussed before on The Interpreter. This post by Giora Eliraz brings the story up to date, but it is seriously misleading in the impression it gives of the history of democracy in Indonesia.

Let me not get distracted by the ahistorical description of Soeharto that makes him sound like your average tin-pot dictator (rather than the man who gave Indonesia thirty years of 7% growth and lifted the country out of abject poverty, creating the large middle class who are the basis of today's democracy).

Eliraz's post makes it sound like democracy was created out of a people's uprising in 1998. For a start, this ignores the 1997-8 Asian Crisis, which delivered a 13% fall in Indonesian GDP, with the exchange rate falling to one quarter of its previous value. Not many governments, democratic or otherwise, could survive that.

But far more misleading still is the idea that democracy was created, ab initio, in 1998.

Indonesia had a functioning democracy in the 1950s, with huge, well-organised political parties (Socialists, Islam-based, Nationalists, Communists — the full range). The basic text for this period is Herb Feith's 'The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia' (a decline, incidentally, which occurred well before Soeharto came on the scene). How could anyone who had read no more than the title of this definitive work write as if democracy was created in 1998?

Under Soeharto, political parties continued to be active and widely supported, even if the government's own party, Golkar, always won the elections. For those who think Golkar was just the artificial creation of the dreaded dictator, it has remained the biggest or second biggest party, and will get bigger — its PDI-P rival will lose its sentimental link to the 1950s Indonesia National Party when Sukarno's daughter steps down from the leadership.

How radical was the transformation which occurred in 1998? Well, the first post-Soeharto president was Soeharto's vice-president and long-term protégé. He took the biggest steps towards a new political environment. All of the subsequent presidents had been prominent and active figures in the Soeharto era.

In short, one key element in this political evolution is entirely missing in Eliraz's post: a recognition of how much continuity linked the pre-1998 period with the subsequent period.

Of course, this continuity is not a simple matter of 'plus ca change...'.  Indonesia's current democracy is of a different nature and order than that in the pre-1998 period. But the crucially important element in assessing what the Indonesian experience might offer for contemporary Egypt is to ask whether Egypt has a counterpart for these long-standing democratic traditions, with vigorous legal political activities by mass-based parties, with all the trappings of elections and the opportunity for a whole political class to learn how to work in the knock-about world of politics.

Photo by Flickr user Ikhlasul Amal.

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