20 years after Soeharto: Is Indonesia’s ‘era reformasi’ over?

Since the end of President Soeharto’s 32-year rule, Indonesia has gone through a period of reform. But recent political and social changes raise questions about where the country is heading

Professor Tim Lindsey, University of Melbourne

Professor Tim Lindsey

Published 20 May 2018

May 1998 was a watershed moment in Indonesian history.

President 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.

President Soeharto held office for 31 years before resigning in May 1998. Picture: Getty Images

Soeharto’s New Order had reinvigorated the Indonesian economy and encouraged Western investment. But his government was essentially an authoritarian regime with military power embedded throughout both the government and economy. Wealth and power were concentrated in the hands of a crony elite - including the military.

This policy led to alienation and discontent and, after the Asian Economic Crisis triggered the collapse of the Indonesian economy, riots swept through Indonesian cities. Finally, on 21 May 1998 the once unthinkable happened, and President Soeharto resigned.

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 hokum (the rule of law) and human rights, and opened politics, business and public discourse to a diverse new range of voices.

Era reformasi

The years after Soeharto’s fall are usually referred to by Indonesians as the Era Reformasi (reform era). The term is still used today, although the spirit of radical reform that drove democratisation is now distant.

In fact, most Indonesian civil society champions agree that reformasi ended a decade or so ago. Despite this, a new label to define reformasi’s replacement hasn’t yet emerged. This reflects deep uncertainty among Indonesians about recent social and political change and where their country is heading.

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

Others argue that the critical change that marked the end of Soeharto’s system, the retreat of the military from government to the barracks, hasn’t been reversed. They point to new governance institutions established post-Soeharto to combat the repression and corruption that characterised his regime, like the Constitutional Court and the courageous Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), as well as to a diverse civil society and a largely free, even boisterous, media.

But they do so with increasingly difficulty.

Protests over a poem by Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, who called the singing of a mother more beautiful than the sound of the call to prayer in Islam. Picture: Getty Images

Rampant corruption is perhaps Indonesia’s single biggest political issue and the KPK is under constant attack from both politicians and the police. Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court is entangled in its own scandals and the press is facing increased use of defamation laws that assist politicians and oligarchs.

Civil society faces new pressures from Indonesia’s emboldened religious and political conservatives that have had a ‘chilling’ effect on many reformers, making them far more cautious about what they say and do.

Where to next?

Reformasi is history.

So where will Indonesia land? Will liberal democracy bounce back? Will Indonesia’s resilient oligarchs complete their creeping takeover of government? Will Indonesia follow Malaysia, conceding political privilege to Islam and institutionalising intolerance? Or will the country keep muddling through?

This uncertainty is the source of confusion and anxiety among ordinary Indonesians. The tensions will only increase with local elections this year and next April’s national elections. Negative campaigning – fake news and all – is underway and will be particularly intense because, for the first time, presidential and legislative elections will be held together next year.

The likely outcome is still unclear due to the disruptive influence of social media manipulation and the unpredictability of the millions of millennials who will be voting (half the population is under 40).

The uncertainty that dominates domestic Indonesian politics will have profound implications for Indonesia’s foreign relations, too.

Indonesia is on the cusp of middle-class status and is rising economically – despite unimpressive economic management. For all the rhetoric from Jakarta about being open for business and reforms to facilitate foreign investment, Indonesia remains fiercely protectionist. A small group of politically powerful oligarchs dominate a highly uncompetitive economy that is a minefield for foreign investors.

Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, the Christian ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta was jailed for blasphemy. Picture: Getty Images

But Indonesia may prosper nonetheless. Rating agencies claim that even if it simply maintains its current 5 per cent GDP growth, Indonesia will achieve global economic clout.

In fact, its leaders believe 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 will make it a global player, they think.


In 2008, at the height of the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, when relations with Australia were as good as they get, Andrew MacIntyre, a professor of political science and Dr Douglas Ramage, then head of the Asia Foundation in Jakarta, argued that Indonesia had committed to a liberal democratic path and participation in the international community. Pluralism, they said, is ‘the bedrock fact of Indonesian society’ and Australia needs to rethink its dated Soeharto-era attitudes to Indonesia.

But another rethink is necessary now.

Indonesia’s commitment to electoral democracy remains strong but support for liberal democracy is less certain and concern for international opinion much diminished. Expectations of Indonesia’s rise are already fuelling experiments with populism, xenophobia and regional assertiveness.

Likewise, pluralism – and the status of religious, ethnic and social minorities – face major challenges from rising religious intolerance. The growing influence of Islamist hardliners, repressed by the Soeharto regime – is fracturing the national consensus on pluralism and these groups seem to be emerging as Indonesia’s alt-right.

Massive rallies by Islamist groups that led to the electoral defeat and jailing for blasphemy of Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, the Christian ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta, shocked Indonesians and foreign observers.

Half the Indonesian voting population is under 40 - making the next election results unpredictable. Picture: Getty Images

Advocates of pluralism and minority rights 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 so-called ‘conservative turn’ on public discourse.

Australia will need a rapid recalibration of its expectations about Indonesia as the country contemplates an uncertain post-reformasi future that may be much less liberal and less welcoming of foreign engagement.

Even if it becomes a wealthier middle class society, Indonesia’s turbulent relations with its neighbours may prove to be more difficult in the decade ahead than at any time since last century.

A version of this article first appeared on the Indonesia at Melbourne blog – you can read the original article here.

Banner: Getty Images

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