When Indonesians finally ousted a military-backed authoritarian regime 20 years ago through a bloody coup, it marked the dawn of new era known as Reformasi.
There were promises of a return democratic rule.
The culmination of the struggle came on May 21, 1998, when President Suharto finally resigned after more than thirty years in power.
However, it was also a tragic juncture in the sprawling nation’s history.
Atrocities, not only in the capital, Jakarta, but throughout the country, claimed the lives of 500 people and thousands were forced to flee violent repression. Dozens are still missing.
Vice president Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, who took over as president, did not have much choice other than to roll out reforms embracing principles of democracy shackled during three decades of Suharto domination.
During Habibie’s 1998-199 presidency, dozens of laws were drafted. While many were passed during his tenure, others were enacted in succeeding years. Those laws are viewed now as the foundation of a new democracy.
Among top priorities were securing press freedom, decentralization and providing scope for new political parties and labor unions as well as the releasing of political prisoners.
Other central objectives included limiting the holding of the presidency to ten years, achieving social justice, reducing the military’s role in politics, ensuring fair elections and tracking down Suharto’s misbegotten wealth.
The big question now is; after 20 years, what have we achieved?
Many social, political and economic factors have changed for the better, but more work is needed to address various failures and obstacles to genuine democracy.
For instance, a law passed in 1999 opened doors for press freedom that was bridled for decades. However, in many cases journalists are still targeted by people involved in corruption.
Despite fierce objection from military, Habibie wanted to end the bloodily-suppressed secessionist rebellion in Timor-Leste, already under international scrutiny, and he opened an opportunity for independence through a 1999 referendum. This can be judged a success, with Timor-Leste now an independent nation.
Indonesia has developed to be one of mankind’s largest democracies — and one of the world’s fifteen largest economies — due primarily to endeavors of the past two decades.
The election in June 1999 was dubbed as the second most democratic election in the country’s history — after one in 1955 — with the participation of 48 old and new political parties.
In the hands of few elite
Reform has brought new modes of governance, moving away from centralization to give more authority to local governments.
During the reform era, three autonomy laws have been passed, with the latest in 2015 under incumbent President Joko Widodo.
The whole idea was to let outlying parts of the country have greater freedom to manage their own affairs and improve living standards
While decentralization suits a nation with more than 17,000 islands, implementation has had myriad shortcomings.
Many local leaders have abused power through personal empire-building to become the equivalent of local kings and queens. The worst of them have sacrificed the common good in order to enrich themselves and extend political oligarchies.
In many cases, permits for mining and exploitation of other natural resources are exchanged for political support. For crooked leaders, elections provide momentum for bargaining with the rich owns of capital who fund them. As a result, local people — even in natural resource-rich regions — do not receive a fair share of benefits.
Ideally, local administrations, through regional autonomy, are supposed govern independently and uplift the lives of constituents.
However, too many prefer to aggrandize themselves, collecting as much money as they can to use as the wherewithal to retain power.
Unlike in previous years, when corruption scandals mostly involved people in the central government, local officials and parliamentarians are now increasingly arrested for graft.
At this stage, Indonesian democracy is facing the gloomy prospect of stagnancy, a state of affairs underscored by an absence of good governance, rampant abuses of office and sectarian conflicts.
Communal strife can be stirred by self-interested, manipulative scoundrels, particularly during elections.
One cannot deny that the noble goal of democratic reform has been hijacked by a handful of people who continue to find ways to perpetuate oligarchies.
Moment of consolidation
In June, more than 160 million people in 171 provinces, municipalities and districts will elect new leaders. The number is about 85 percent of 196 million voters who will participate in legislative elections for members of parliament and a president next year.
Many fear that intense competition will result in intimidation by groups or individuals seeking to exploit ethnic or religious sentiments.
Alliances are prone to be established on the basis of political pragmatism in order to grab power rather than elevate the social and economic life of ordinary folk.
However, there is some optimism that the Muslim majority — with the leadership of two major Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah — has become more accepting of democratic ideals. The Jakarta governor’s bitter election campaign last year, marred by anti-ethnic-Chinese politicking, should not be repeated in future elections.
Hopefully, opposition by a majority to sectarianism and chaos, and acceptance that elections should be a reflection of a will to change as well as just choosing new leaders, will improve the democratic process.
Indonesia’s founding fathers and modern proponents of reform, activists and grassroots alike, dream of a society where politics and economic management are conducted in harmony. Fair elections are a prerequisite for this.
It’s time to free ourselves from those inhabiting murky waters who seek to prey on democracy rather than defend it.
Published in La Croix International, May 23 2018: Indonesians tire of oligarchy