Indonesia: Indonesia Politics: Shifting Ground?

2007

Professor Ann Kumar

Indonesian politics will remain fluid and complex, at least in the short term, though proposals for reform might, depending on how they evolve, increase stability in the future. Currently, Presidents can be elected with minimal party backing. President Susilo Bambang Sudoyono (SBY) is supported by a large majority of parliament, with the nationalist PDIP as the chief opposition. However, his initial cabinet had a large majority of professional non-partisan members and these do not provide adequate support in a parliament that can pass laws without the President's signature. Those ministers who are party members are not chosen by the President but by their parties, giving them a divided loyalty. Many ministers were also without previous cabinet experience.

When first appointing his cabinet the President agreed to review it after a year, and the first reshuffle was in December 2005. One less seat was given to the professional group (reduced from 20 to 19) and one more to Golkar (increased from 2 to 3, still a small number considering they were the most electorally successful party). In May 2007 there was another reshuffle in which Golkar, which has maintained strong support nationally, got another minister. Acceptance of periodic reshuffles as a norm tends however to produce instability.

The presidential secretariat and the Cabinet secretariat which helped streamline presidential tasks in previous administrations have disappeared. The State Secretariat has no special function related to the presidency and is a hangover of Soeharto-style bureaucracy, obstructing rather than assisting reform. This situation and SBY's well-known tendency to be indecisive makes for a weak Presidency, as has been the case since the departure of Suharto.

Nevertheless, SBY's personal approval rate has been high, especially outside Java, at least until recently, when it sank to 50% because of dissatisfaction with the economy. Polling shows that SBY is still the most popular choice for President, with Megawati, the leader of the PDIP, as the only serious challenger (followed by the old players General Wiranto and Amien Rais). Golkar, PKB (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, strongly linked to former President Abdurrahman Wahid), and PKS (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera) have more younger politicians, but they are not yet Presidential material. The PKS is a Muslim Brotherhood inspired party which increased its vote six-fold between the 1999 and 2004 elections by campaigning on clean governance, anti-corruption moves, the rule of law, more equitable distribution of wealth and better education, health and welfare services.

At the national level, though economic issues are extremely important, there remains some polarisation into different ideological camps (aliran). When the PDIP suffered a large (c. 40%) decline in popularity, its supporters shifted to seven smaller nationalist parties, and not to Islamic parties. The same is true in reverse with Islamic parties, which also have an additional ideological barrier between modernist and traditionalist Muslims, with voters not transferring to Islamic parties on the other side of this divide.

At the local level, politics has become less Jakarta-centric than it used to be. In 1999-2001 decentralisation laws were passed, which were implemented in terms of elections in 2005, so that now local politics are somewhat independent and developing their own dynamic. Local leaders are under considerable pressure to deliver to their constituency, particularly in the economic field.

National politics do still connect with local politics, as votes for the different parties are much the same. On the other hand, the "electability" of candidates based on their perceived integrity, benevolence or charisma appears to be becoming more important vis-a-vis ideological/party orientation. There has been a significant rise in the numbers of successful independents at the local level: in Aceh, for instance, an independent non-partisan candidate won.

The Jakarta elections of August 8 presented an interesting example of the dissolving of aliran boundaries. PKS won the 2004 election, but now 21 Islamic as well as non-Islamic parties have allied to defeat it 56-44. This followed other worse-than-expected PKS results in 2005 and 2006.

Watchpoint: There is to be a comprehensive review of Indonesia's political laws, covering districts, financing, election schedules and other matters. Megawati has proposed holding the presidential election before the general election, while Vice-President Kalla has proposed holding the presidential/gubernatorial/district head elections at the same time. Golkar and PDIP have quite similar agendas for political reform. Between them they control 238 seats, while an alliance of small parties controls 312 seats. An important question is whether the Golkar-PDIP alliance will last and provide stability to Indonesian politics.

Another question is what PKS will do to maintain/increase its popularity. Will it pursue the "clean and caring" program that fuelled its earlier surge, or switch to promoting more specifically Islamic initiatives? Lastly, will the President move to strengthen his position? Possible strategies would be to seek an alliance with an existing party or to develop his own party.

Watchpoint: There is to be a comprehensive review of Indonesia's political laws, covering districts, financing, election schedules and other matters. Megawati has proposed holding the presidential election before the general election, while Vice-President Kalla has proposed holding the presidential/gubernatorial/district head elections at the same time. Golkar and PDIP have quite similar agendas for political reform. Between them they control 238 seats, while an alliance of small parties controls 312 seats. An important question is whether the Golkar-PDIP alliance will last and provide stability to Indonesian politics.

Another question is what PKS will do to maintain/increase its popularity. Will it pursue the "clean and caring" program that fuelled its earlier surge, or switch to promoting more specifically Islamic initiatives? Lastly, will the President move to strengthen his position? Possible strategies would be to seek an alliance with an existing party or to develop his own party.

The author acknowledges Anies Baswedan's informative oral presentation at the 2007 Indonesia Update. The complete version of the paper is to be published in the December 2007 issue of the Bulletin of Indonesian Studies.

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