Indonesia: Political Uncertainty


Dr Harold Crouch

Indonesia's political crisis was by no means resolved at the end of 1998. President Habibie attempted to overcome his own lack of popular legitimacy by calling into session the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) in November to establish guidelines for the future. But the MPR, which in March had re-elected Soeharto unanimously as president, had its own legitimacy problems - as had the Golkar-dominated parliament which was considering new electoral laws. Nevertheless, the previously-quiescent minority Muslim party, the Development Unity Party, sensing the need for a new image as the prospect of genuine elections approached, provided unexpected opposition while even Golkar realised that it needed to refurbish itself in order to survive fair elections. The new electoral laws were subjected to vigorous debate in the parliament and were expected to be adopted by the end of January in time for a general election on 7 June.

As the politicians argued over election laws and other matters, the streets were filled by rival factions spearheaded by demonstrating students. While Muslim students and youth organisations were mobilised to support the MPR session, other students groups demanded the replacement of Habibie by an ill-defined 'presidium', the dissolution of the MPR, the ending of military involvement in politics and the trial of Soeharto. As the military attempted to prevent the advance of demonstrators toward the MPR building, soldiers and police opened fire on 13 November, killing seven students and wounding many more.

The 'Semanggi' shooting was yet another blow to the military's reputation which had been besmirched during the previous six months by revelations of shocking brutality not only in outlying regions like East Timor, Irian Jaya and Aceh but also in Jakarta. In response to an avalanche of public criticism in the newly freed mass media, the military leaders themselves indicated their willingness to reduce their political role while the armed forces commander gave full support to Indonesia's new civilian president. In the circumstances of late 1998 the possibility of a military coup was not on the agenda.

But political uncertainty and the absence of signs of economic recovery were accompanied by indications of social disintegration. Ethnic and religious conflict and rioting broke out regularly while looting and crime became commonplace. As the general election loomed on the horizon, clashes between supporters of rival political parties took place while in some outlying regions the call for separation was heard. Continuing social unrest seems likely in 1999.

WATCHPOINT: Despite continuing social unrest, military intervention is unlikely, at least in the short run.


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