Indonesia: A Return To Authoritarianism?

2001

Dr Edward Aspinall

In the days immediately before and after the election of Megawati Soekarnoputri as Indonesia’s fifth president on July 23, much of the international press (especially the Australian press) warned of a return to authoritarianism in Indonesia. Megawati’s appointment, it was commonly argued, masked a resurgence of the military, Golkar and ‘Suhartoist’ forces.

There are indeed some troubling signs of a return to repressive policies in Indonesia. These are most apparent in Irian Jaya and Aceh. Since late 2000, the Indonesian military has largely abandoned the formerly permissive approach encouraged by President Abdurrahman in these two provinces. Targeted arrests of pro-independence activists have been combined with ‘limited’ military operations, especially in Aceh. The violence has been particularly bad in the latter province, where some 1100 people have been killed this year. A much less pronounced return to repression is also visible in response to labour and left-wing activism. In recent months, for example, local security forces in West and East Java have arrested members of the small left-wing People’s Democratic Party (PRD).

Such developments, however, do not amount to a wholesale return to Suharto-style authoritarianism. The targeting of PRD activists takes place against a backdrop of a much liberalised labour regime. This has allowed workers to mount some massive mobilisations in recent months. As for Irian Jaya and Aceh, it is apparent that a political consensus is developing in Indonesia that these two provinces are ‘special’. With the exception of a few courageous voices, almost the entire Indonesian political spectrum supports, or at least acquiesces to, hardline policies there in defence of “national unity”. While obviously negative for the inhabitants of these territories, this might not necessarily lead to an erosion of democracy in the nation as a whole. Many countries in Asia and beyond (India and the Philippines are examples) have long directed ruthless repression against secessionist movements on the periphery of the nation-state, while adhering to the formal rules of democracy at the centre.

The dynamics underlying the change from Abdurrahman to Megawati was, in any case, largely separate from such developments. The battle line in the national political elite was not drawn between ‘reformers’ around President Abdurrahman and ‘conservatives’ around Megawati, even though the former president attempted to portray the struggle in this way.

The chief cause of the political conflict within the national political elite was President Abdurrahman himself. His governing style drove all kinds of political forces into the Megawati camp. This included Muslim political parties, which had previously spoken out against the very idea of a woman president, and the armed forces leadership, which, under General Wiranto, had backed Abdurrahman in late 1999. Thus, the political coalition which underpins Megawati’s new government is virtually identical to that which supported Abdurrahman’s own first cabinet in late 1999. Megawati’s cabinet has a higher representation of bureaucrats and professionals, but the spread of party representation is very similar. Indeed, about two thirds of its members served in Abdurrahman’s own cabinets.

WATCHPOINT: We can expect similar broad policy directions from Megawati’s government to its predecessor – minus the chaos and disorder introduced by Abdurrahman’s reckless political behaviour.

 

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