President Joko Widodo leading a ceremony on Pancasila Sanctity Day, on Oct. 1. (Antara Photo/M. Agung Rajasa)

Johannes Nugroho: Is Jokowi Nostalgic for the Good Ol' Days of Suharto?


OCTOBER 31, 2015

The civil societies of both Indonesia and the world were understandably stunned when Indonesian authorities in Bali made threats to break up the 2015 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival unless the organizers agreed to cancel certain sessions discussing the 1965 anti-communist purge. The scare tactics were reminiscent of those regularly used by Suharto’s New Order regime during its 32-year rule. In a moment of extraordinary irony, this has happened under a president championed by civil societies around the world because he was thought to be the least likely candidate to instigate a return to Suhartoism.

So the question now is whether we were all reading the wrong libretto about President Joko Widodo. Was he in any way more sympathetic to the old ways? Did we simply conclude he was progressive because his rival, Prabowo Subianto, seemed so Suhartoist that his challenger became his antithesis by default?

Prabowo’s camp certainly reeked of New Order vestiges. Suharto’s family, often dubbed the Cendana Clan after the name of the street where they reside, seemed to endorse Prabowo’s presidential bid. Suharto’s second daughter and former wife of Prabowo, Siti Hediati Hariyadi, better known as Titiek, unequivocally campaigned for her ex-husband and even announced that Prabowo had her family’s blessings.

Prabowo’s presidential candidacy also had the ominous prelude of seeing Golkar, the political party Suharto founded, harp on the tune of how all things had been better in the good ol' days. So when the Golkar Party and the United Development Party (PPP), another Suharto-era party, converged to support Prabowo, the crowd did resemble a conclave of New Order stalwarts, uniting the likes of Aburizal Bakrie, Fadel Muhammad and Titiek Suharto.

The most damning of all for Prabowo was undoubtedly his unsavory past as a military commander suspected of involvement in gross human rights abuses: including the kidnapping of democracy activists, the targeting of civilians during Indonesia's occupation of what is now Timor Leste and his possible role in engineering the deadly 1998 riots in Jakarta.

It is possible that the preponderance of New Order mementos within Prabowo’s Red and White Coalition (KMP) caused us to overlook the same thing in Jokowi, as the president is affectionately known, and his own Awesome Indonesia Coalition (KIH). His running mate, now Vice President Jusuf Kalla, came into prominence during Suharto’s reign. Even his political backers Megawati Soekarnoputri, Surya Paloh and notably Wiranto honed their political skills under the political settings crafted by Suharto. 

The longevity of his rule and the lack of any credible opposition meant that Suharto had a free hand in re-structuring the nation’s psyche and mentality to suit his needs. Ever the keen opportunist, Suharto from the start successfully spurred the powerful enemies of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) into action.

Although PKI was then, at least on paper, the second-largest political party in Indonesia after the Indonesian National Party (PNI) with membership numbering in millions, it was more of a paper tiger in real terms. This explained its quick downfall in the subsequent confrontation with the religious nationalists, political Islamists and the right-wing forces. The PKI’s own belligerence when it enjoyed the favor of the country's first president, Sukarno, had earned it bitter enemies. Its forced land redistribution scheme, for instance, was often popularly and bloodily resisted by many landowners in rural areas. 

Phobia of communism (often equated with atheism by Suharto’s regime), the subjugation of human rights in favor of obedience to the state, and paternalism are some of the most important features of the New Order era. It created an illusion of stability and certainty for most Indonesians, a welcome respite from the turbulent years of Sukarno’s early 1960s. With the beginning of industrialization and foreign capital inflow, Suharto’s Indonesia reached its golden decade in the 1980s.

What many of us probably forget is that Jokowi spent much of his adult life in this golden decade. He graduated from university in 1985 and married the following year. Born in 1961, he was too young to have any memory from the Sukarno years. So, Jokowi was essentially born, bred and educated during the Suharto era. Unlike his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was fast rising through the military ranks in those days, Jokowi was also largely uninformed about the inner workings of the regime.

For most Indonesians of his generation, especially those unacquainted with the many dark sides of Suharto's rule, there is a nostalgic feeling about the lost era of orderly, safe and quiet public life.

Take away the 1965 communist purge, the 1974 Malari incident, the atrocities in Timor Leste, Aceh and Papua, the extrajudicial killings of civilians and the shackled press, Suharto’s Indonesia did seem shipshape compared to the pandemonium that followed Reformasi. In foreign policy, Indonesia also enjoyed greater regional and international eminence through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the Non-Aligned Movement, and also an anti-communist bulwark during the Cold War.

Is it possible that our current president shares this nostalgia for Suharto’s Indonesia? Or does he, like so many Indonesians of his generation, subconsciously carry the wieldy New Order baggage of entrenched prejudices and distorted history?

Perhaps these questions can only be answered to satisfaction decades from now. However, Jokowi did make pledges to strengthen democracy during his campaign. Whether it was out of conviction or ruse, we still await his action to disabuse us of our worst fears.      

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at or on Twitter: