Johannes Nugroho: After 17 Years of Reformasi, Where Do We Stand?

MAY 20, 2015

This Thursday, on May 21, Indonesia’s post-Suharto democracy will mark its 17th birthday. In those seventeen years, the country has seen five legislative and three direct presidential elections. Some central government powers have been devolved to the provinces and Suharto’s three-party system has been opened up. So how do things stand now?

Indonesia possesses all the structures of a typical representative democracy. Institutions central to effective democratic performance have been reformed, if not created from scratch, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) being a notable example. The House of Representatives (DPR) is no longer a rubber stamp, thanks to a series of constitutional amendments.

In theory, a strong legislative body should maximize the government’s accountability to the people. However, a nationwide survey conducted by Populi Center last January found that the House was perceived as the most corrupt state institution and that most respondents doubted its capacity to represent the people.

The lack of public trust in the DPR is indeed a serious defect in Indonesia’s reformed democracy. Trust is the last thing the House is likely to receive when many of its members are regularly implicated in various corruption scandals.

But the legislators are not the only rotten apples. It cannot be denied that the people connive in the corruption of their representatives, even before their election. Hence it is unrealistic for the people to demand high standards from the lawmakers when many of them expect to have their votes “bought” by candidates at election time. No fewer than 52 percent of the reported violations during the 2014 legislative elections comprised instances where campaigning candidates distributed money to their constituents. The actual percentage could be higher if unreported cases were to be taken into account.

While the president is now directly elected by the people, there are signs that the quality of the election process has diminished. When the country held its first presidential election in 2004, there were five presidential candidates with their respective running mates. Five years later, only three presidential candidates entered the fray while in 2014 the number went down to two.

Admittedly, the 2004 presidential election was different in the sense that the threshold required for a political party or coalition to nominate a candidate was 5 percent of the popular vote, while by the next election in 2009, it had been altered to 20 percent. The threshold was the same in 2014.

As Indonesia doesn’t have a two-party system like, for example, the United States, the lack of choice in the last presidential election represented an attenuation of quality in a political system, suggesting a failure in effecting regeneration. Both the lack of public trust in the legislature, and the stunted regeneration of political leadership reflect the country’s parochial political culture, essentially unchanged from Suharto’s reign.

It was only last week that the Democratic Party’s fourth congress in Surabaya unanimously elected former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as its chairman, an inevitable outcome when there was no other contender.

Yudhoyono's election as chairman was perhaps a foregone conclusion even before the congress, given his family’s powerful influence within the party. It was also unthinkable that the only president the party has ever produced should fail to be re-elected as chairman. However, one can’t help thinking that SBY’s sole candidacy came about through machination, designed to spare the somewhat sensitive leader the “indignity” of having to win through a voting mechanism.

Curiously, the allergy to voting is a widespread phenomenon in Indonesian politics since, prior to her re-election as chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) Megawati Soekarnoputri lambasted voting as an “imported Western custom.” In apparent disdain of Western-style democracy, the PDI-P even skipped the nominal election process and went on to re-install Megawati unanimously as chairwoman for the fourth consecutive term since 1998.

Megawati also said the “Indonesian” way of reaching decisions is through “musyawarah untuk mufakat” (deliberation towards consensus) and “gotong royong” (communal effort), both of which were two of the concepts Suharto used to silence his critics and impose his autocratic will on the nation for three decades.

Suharto’s definition of consensus is markedly differed from that of the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who mocked it as “something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects.” His “mufakat” was closer to “something in which he believed, but no one else dared dispute.” It remains unclear what Megawati’s own understanding of the concept is, but given her professed aversion to anything Western, it’s doubtful she had Thatcher’s in mind.

Seventeen years on, Indonesia’s venture into democracy has resulted in very little change in the country’s political culture or any decline in rampant corruption. It’s not the political structures that fail the nation; rather it is the political culture. Perhaps Reformasi’s only saving grace is the greater press freedom Indonesians enjoy today. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at