Indonesia: Election Puzzle - Why Are The Big Indonesian Parties So Conservative?


Dr Gerry van Klinken

It's been a long time between drinks. Indonesia's last democratic elections are now a living memory only for those with grey hair. These elections are a new creature, and full of puzzles for observers. Will they be really 'democratic'? Will more blood be spilled? Will they restore a sense of national direction? Will they satisfy the regions? The most puzzling question for me is: Why are the big parties so conservative?

Throughout the turbulent months on either side of Suharto's resignation on 21 May 1998, two demands occupied the demonstrators more than anything else: the military out of politics, and a trial for Suharto's crimes against the nation.

You would expect these demands to be campaign themes for the political parties now vying to lead the nation. An ideal way to break with the past and identify with the popular hunger for justice. You would be wrong.

The major hitherto marginal parties are Megawati's Struggle PDI, Abdurrahman Wahid's PKB, Amien Rais' PAN. Without going into the acronyms, let's make some notes:

  • Megawati's party has silenced its one member (Aberson Silaloho) who had been outspoken against a political role for the military. It has welcomed a swag of retired soldiers into its bosom, rewarding some with senior positions.

  • Megawati's only comment during the campaign to bring down Suharto last year was that she felt sorry because it reminded her of the way her father Sukarno was treated in 1966.

  • Abdurrahman Wahid has had as many as seven meetings with Suharto since the latter resigned from office, and puts the matter of his crimes last on the political agenda.

  • Amien Rais has been by far the most outspoken on the need to put Suharto on trial. Yet even he includes soldiers in the 'clean coalition' he wants to see rule the country.

    Some observers, noting this distinct reluctance to let go of Suharto and of a politically virile military, have explained it by saying old habits die hard for these Suharto-era figures. An explanation that worries me more is that the parties with clout are perhaps backed by a middle class that thinks the upheavals of the last two years contain no lessons about the dangers of New Order elitism. However, I guess it is too early to be doctrinaire about this. At least these elections will revive a democratic process that has atrophied for over four decades.

    WATCHPOINT: Are the big parties reluctant to let go of Suharto and a politically virile military because the middle class feels nostalgic for them?


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