Political Dynamics

Indonesia Table of Contents


In his 1990 annual National Day address to the nation, Suharto confirmed his mandate for more openness in political expression. "We must no longer be afraid of the multifarious views and opinions expressed by the people," he declared. This new tolerance was first given attention in the domestic political dialogue that began after his inauguration for a fifth term. The year 1989 saw an outpouring of opinion, discussion, and debate as keterbukaan (openness) promised a breath of fresh air in what many felt was an atmosphere of sterile platitudinism and sloganeering. There was in 1989, according to American political scientist Gorden R. Hein, "a dramatic expansion in public discussion of important political and economic issues facing the country." Officials, politicians, retired generals, nongovernmental organizations, and student leaders expressed their views on controversial subjects ranging from environmental degradation to business conglomerates, from the role of the military to party politics. Many who had previously felt excluded from meaningful involvement hoped that keterbukaan would encourage greater political participation, not only in the national policy dialogue but in access to the political process. The most serious structural manifestation of keterbukaan was the establishment in 1991 of the Democracy Forum. The forum was chaired by Nahdatul Ulama's secretary general, Abdurrahman Wahid, and participated in by well-known academics, journalists, and other intellectuals. Its goal was to loosen existing political arrangements to assure "that the nation matures politically."

The turn toward keterbukaan was a welcome thaw after the chill of the mid-1980s crackdown on what the government considered "subversive" opposition. The passage of the Mass Organizations Law in 1985 stoked the incendiary environment in which more radical Muslim activists were prepared for direct action against a government that resisted demands that the state itself should express an Islamic quality. In September 1984, the situation had deteriorated over an incident in which a soldier allegedly defiled a mosque in Tanjung Priok (in the northern part of Jakarta). The incident was a pretext for rioting and clashes between the army and mobs provoked by fiery Islamic invocations. This was followed by bomb blasts and arson that to an alarmed ABRI presaged a call for jihad (holy war). The Tanjung Priok affair was the most destabilizing open confrontation between the government and opposition since the anti-Japanese riots that took place during Japanese prime minister Tanaka Kakuei's visit to Indonesia in January 1974. Again, the government's reaction was swift and stern. Thirty defendants were jailed from one to three years in the wake of the Tanjung Priok riot. Ten people were convicted of conspiracy in the 1985 Bank Central Asia bombing following the Tanjung Priok affair, including former cabinet minister Haji Mohammad Sanusi. At the heart of the legal assault on the opposition were the trials of prominent Islamic and retired military figures who were vaguely linked by the government to the Bank Central Asia bombing but whose real crime was association with the Petition of Fifty group.

The Petition of Fifty was a petition by former generals, political leaders, academicians, students, and others that was submitted to the MPR in 1980. The petition accused Suharto of using the Pancasila to attack political opponents and to foster antidemocratic, one-man rule. The signers of the statement were roundly excoriated by Suharto loyalists. The signers escaped arrest but were put under tight surveillance and lost many of their official perquisites.

Lieutenant General (retired) H.R. Dharsono was the most prominent of the Petition of Fifty group. After the Tanjung Priok affair, Dharsono was arrested because of a position paper he and twenty-one others had signed in September 1984, challenging the government's version of the affair. According to the prosecution, this position paper "undermined the authority of the government." Dharsono also was accused of "mental terrorism" for having made statements that could cause social unrest, as well as of associating with persons allegedly involved in the subsequent bombings. In an extraordinarily open trial, he was found guilty in January 1986 and sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. Unrepentant, Dharsono was released in the looser atmosphere of keterbukaan in September 1990. Clearly, the Dharsono trial and others, as well as the social and economic pressures on extraparliamentary critics of the government, such as the Petition of Fifty group, were meant as reminders of the acceptable boundaries of political comment. As if to drive the point home, nine PKI prisoners who had been jailed for twenty years were executed in October 1986. Two others were executed in 1988. These exemplary punishments were warnings against the consequences of "left extremism."

The fact that the legal and official regulatory framework that stifled opposition for so many years remained intact required cautious conclusions about keterbukaan. Although the dialogue was more open and included more "political" subjects in the early 1990s, limits could be quickly and arbitrarily set by the government, whose level of tolerance was unpredictable. The limits were ambiguous because they tended to be applied capriciously. Still, there were indicators that a more participative political system would evolve in the mid- to late 1990s. American political scientist R. William Liddle identified six characteristics of the Indonesian economy, society, and politics that appeared to favor a move in that direction: growing dependence on domestic taxes and thus taxpayer approval; wide distribution of the benefits of economic growth with increased resources for groups to become politically active; greater connections to the outside world; greater education and literacy; more interest in democratization; and an institutionalized strong presidency. This last factor ensured that as more political voices were heard there would be no return to the parliamentary impotency that paralyzed Indonesia in the 1950s. Thus, it was argued, democracy and stability could coexist.

Much, of course, would depend upon the succession scenario. According to a less sanguine assessment, a more open political dialogue could be manipulated by the major actors positioning themselves for the succession--ABRI, Islam, bureaucratic interests, and Golkar. These groups sought support among a growing middle-class constituency which, intermittently at least, was moved by the kinds of issues raised by socially conscious nongovernmental organizations and students, as well as nonestablishment political organizations like the group that issued the Petition of Fifty. The succession issue itself, as long as it remained unresolved, had the potential of being a destablilizing factor. Outside the bureaucratic inner circle, the political actors most directly affected by succession could only imperfectly transmit their messages about democracy, equity, corruption, the environment, and succession to the public because the nongovernmental media was subject to the same constraints as the other institutions in Pancasila democracy.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress