Indonesia: A New New Order?

1998

Professor J.A.C. Mackie

Will Soeharto's removal from office and the advent of a new Indonesian government under President Habibie be sufficient to overcome Indonesia's political and economic crisis after all the upheaval of recent weeks? No confident answer can yet be given to that question, for the power struggles triggered by the events of 18-21 May may take weeks or months to play themselves out - and the economic crisis much longer. But it is clear that Indonesia has now passed a major watershed in its transition from the long second presidency to the third, which is likely to be short, and most likely a mere transitional phase. The fourth and fifth presidents may prove to be far more significant than Habibie in determining the broad outlines of the post-New Order system of government, which will be very different from Soeharto's New Order in several crucial respects. First, the immense concentration and personalization of power in the hands of the president achieved by Soeharto will not be replicated by any successor for many years, if ever. He will not have anything like the same financial resources behind him, either official or personal, nor the same prestige and moral authority, the same tight control over the military or the same experience and skill in wielding the complex levers of power over the bureaucratic apparatus. Second, the depoliticization of national life at all but the highest levels of the socio-political structure that has characterized Indonesia's last twenty five years, and the political torpor, acquiescence in established authority and reluctance to challenge authority that resulted from it, will all have been shaken terminally by the events of recent weeks. The demands for popular participation in the processes of government cannot be rejected even by the Armed Forces. Whether or not it will be possible to move quickly towards a more genuinely democratic form of government (to which the obstacles ahead are formidable), there will almost certainly be some movement in that direction, and no possibility of reversing course in the near future. Third, the patrimonialist character of the New Order regime under Soeharto, in which copious financial resources and ultimate political authority were focussed at the apex of the political pyramid, with no rival clusters of power or wealth, and a top-down flow of patronage and resources to favoured clients at every level of government from the Palace to the village, will not now be easy to reconstruct. Because of the economic crisis, the feature of the system will gradually crumble from within. Fourth, the State-society balance that had swung so heavily in favour of an authoritarian State under Soeharto, with weak, flaccid and vulnerable society-based institutions will now tilt back the other way. The State will be weaker while societal forces and organizations will be able to grow much more vigorous and self-confident. There is now an opportunity for changes in the electoral and party system - possibly through a 'district system' of smaller constituencies (single-member ones, as in Malaya), which would do a lot to reduce the crippling power of party headquarters over MPs created by the current proportional representation system. In addition, abolition of the three-party system is on the cards and would also help greatly. There may be a backlash of popular anger against the Soeharto children and their ill-gotten wealth, but they are probably facing financial ruin from the financial crisis in any case. Without the unchallengeable authority of their father behind them their days in the sun must soon be numbered.

WATCHPOINT: Stability is still a long way off.

 

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