Indonesia’s Grand Experiment with Democracy-Is It Coming to an End?

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Rizal Ramli
Rizal Ramli, Former coordinating minister of maritime affairs for the Republic of Indonesia.

Jakarta, IO – Almost a quarter of a century ago, in the midst of the Asian financial crisis in May 1998, Indonesia’s economy literally came to a standstill. The rupiah had crashed, tycoons were going bankrupt and losing their business empires. University students were filling the streets of cities across the entire archipelago demanding the resignation of then President Suharto, and after the tragic shooting of students in the yard of Trisakti University in Jakarta, protests became even larger and led to complete chaos. Indonesia was literally on the brink of collapse. 

Suharto was reluctant at first to succumb to calls for him to step down. After more than three decades in power, he found himself surrounded by sycophants telling him that could ride out the wave of protests and manage to stay in office. Yet in his final days in the palace, realizing that if he ordered the military to come down hard on the protesters it could easily end in a bloodbath, Suharto came to his senses and realized he was playing the equivalent of a zero sum game on a sinking ship. 

On May 21, Suharto announced his resignation–the New Order regime, which had overseen an economic success story yet was stained with violence and suppression, was coming to a close. 

The only question at the time was, what would the next chapter look like? Would Suharto’s previous vice president and successor, BJ Habibie, prove to be an authoritarian as well, or would he meet Indonesians’ demands for sweeping political reform? 

As a former university student who protested against the Suharto regime in the 1970s only to find myself in jail, I waited with trepidation. Throughout his career Habibie was seen as a subservient acolyte of Suharto and his clan–there were no traces to be found in his career that hinted he would end up becoming a reformist. And the fact he was surrounded by men who had spent their years in power under Suharto as well made me pessimistic about our future. 

What happened next came as a complete surprise to Habibie’s naysayers, including myself. Instead of clamping down on pro-democracy activists, Habibie announced democratic elections would be held three years earlier than scheduled. He also liberalized the press, oversaw the lifting of restrictions on political parties and the decentralization of political powers, effectively granting local governments a much greater control over their affairs.

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These sweeping reforms marked the beginning of Indonesia’s democratic transition. When Habibie’s successor, Abdurrahman came to power in the latter part of 1999, he achieved peace with separatist groups in the provinces of Aceh and Papua. Wahid, the former head of the world’s largest Islamic organization, Nadhlatul Ulama, quickly became a well-known figure on the global stage as a voice for moderate Islam, at one point even suggesting that Indonesia open up diplomatic relations with Israel. 

Indonesia now held center stage as one of the world’s more prestigious democracies, ranking as the third largest and the largest in the entire Muslim world. It was held up as a shining example of what other Muslim majority countries could, and should, aspire for.