Jakarta, Indonesia – In less than a month, this sprawling country of nearly 250 million people will choose their next president.
Many have praised Indonesia’s democratic efforts, pointing out that the world’s most populous Muslim country has come a long way since Suharto’s authoritarian “New Order” ended in 1998.
“Indonesia progressed rapidly in the years immediately following the fall of Suharto in terms of building and strengthening democratic institutions,” said Paul Rowland, a Jakarta-based political analyst and former Indonesia country director for the New Democracy Institute.
He cited strengthened separation of powers, a directly elected president, the military’s removal from politics, a new constitutional court, and an independent election commission as examples of why many see Indonesia as a model democracy.
But memories of Suharto’s autocratic rule – as well as the riots, abductions and deaths in the lead-up to his downfall – still mar the country’s political landscape.
The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) – and communist parties more generally – are barred from participating in the country’s elections, nearly 50 years after an anti-communist purge that by some estimates left half a million people dead.
are still banned is a symptom of a system full of the diseases of corruption and cronyism.”]
An ‘unhealthy’ democracy?
The fervent anti-communist sentiment that brought General Suharto to power and began his three-decade long dictatorship, carried on after his regime. Throughout Suharto’s time as president, the PKI was painted as an enemy of the Indonesian state. The mass killings became a taboo topic, unmentioned in Indonesian history books to this day.
Some believe that it is time for a change. “Indonesia is a democracy. A very unhealthy one,” said Susi, an activist with Indonesia Changemakers, who helps organise Jakarta screenings of the controversial documentary The Act of Killing, in which perpetrators of the 1965-66 killings simulate re-enactments of their murders.
“The fact that [political parties] are still banned is a symptom of a system full of the diseases of corruption and cronyism.”
Several organisations have called for rescinding the undemocratic bans as part of an overall effort to improve human rights in Indonesia.
But lifting the ban would be no simple task. Indonesia’s 1998-99 transition to democracy did not see a concerted effort to bring past abuses to light. Fears of disintegration and violent separatist conflicts led to a continuation of the pre-Suharto restrictions on regional parties – and the ban on the PKI was kept in place, remaining to this day. Democracy has not yet made space for a new Indonesian left.
“At this point, electoral politics are more personality and money-based than on sharp ideological differences. The main players have little interest in opening the field to any who would run ideologically based campaigns,” said John Miller, who is with the East Timor Action Network, a human rights NGO. “Anti-communism remains a strong point of consensus among the Islamic and nationalist-based parties.”
A silent past
Today, decentralisation has actually resulted in increased corruption at the local level. Vote-buying is still rampant, and parties are driven more by personality than by policies.
“Rather than providing more economic power to regions, decentralisation just shifted corruption, collusion, and nepotism from the central to the regional level,” said Farzikha Soerono, an Indonesian researcher at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
In the current presidential race, the past is rarely discussed, and neither candidate has given any sign that they will rescind the restrictions on political parties or atone for Indonesia’s past.
Communism isn't compatible with Indonesian values. At least, that's what we're told.
“The fact is that most Indonesians remain reticent to confront the nation’s past fight against the PKI – and for older Indonesians, the memory of a communist insurgency still exists,” said Gregory Poling, an Indonesia expert at the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The bottom line is that lawmakers have no incentive to remove the ban on PKI because there is no public demand to do so.”
Mary Alice Haddad, a professor of government at Wesleyan University, agreed, arguing democratic progress won’t come from the top, but requires an educated electorate – and that will take time.
“Democracy requires a lot of effort from citizens. They have to remain informed about what their government is doing, they have to participate actively in elections, some even have to run for office,” she said.
Indonesia may be Southeast Asia’s most successful democracy. Despite its leaders’ fears of disintegration, removing electoral restrictions may be the key to fulfilling Indonesia’s democratic hopes.
“The lifting of ideological bans needs to be part of a broader process in which freedom of information and freedom of expression becomes increasingly tolerated and encouraged, and the society develops into one that tolerates, enables, and encourages a diversification of ideas,” said Haddad.
Whether or not the country will consider allowing communist parties to run in future elections is difficult to predict. Of the 10 political parties represented in the incoming parliament, all have nationalist or moderate Islamic platforms. None are rooted in the ideological left.
“That’s because communism isn’t compatible with Indonesian values,” said Samudi, a Jakartan voter. “At least, that’s what we’re told.”
Follow Nithin Coca on Twitter: @excinit