The unpopular transitional BJ Habibie administration achieved a great deal in its 17 months in power because of external pressure, as well as a desire to prove its reformist credentials to both supporters and critics.

When Soeharto fell, there was no clearly defined vision of what was best for the state and how it could be achieved. The reform agenda was basically a list of things that people did not like about the New Order.


Indonesia has been hailed as a success for its relatively smooth transition from authoritarianism to democracy. This achievement has become even more apparent as the world has witnessed the dashed hopes of the Arab Spring, as countries in the Middle East and North Africa have been wracked by conflict or returned to non-democratic rule. Southeast Asia, too, has seen a democratic regression despite the promises of a few years ago. Bucking this disheartening trend, Indonesia is right to be proud of being a country where democracy, Islam, modernity and women’s empowerment can walk hand-in-hand.


But Indonesia’s journey has not been easy. One of the main obstacles to progress has been the difficulty in reaching a national consensus about what is best for the country and how to achieve it. When Soeharto fell, there was no clearly defined vision of the ideal state beyond normative statements about democracy, justice, protection of human rights, and a respected place in the global community. Before 1998, there was broad agreement on a number of priorities for reform, such as limiting presidential terms, ending the dual-function of the military, reducing over-centralisation, reversing the dominance of the executive and eradicating corruption. But the reform agenda was essentially a list of what people did not like about the New Order government.


While many of the excesses of the earlier authoritarian regimes had been caused by the brief and in some places vague nature of the 1945 Constitution, any suggestions to replace it with a completely new constitution were overwhelmingly rejected. There were fears that if a new constitution were to be drafted, debates that had divided the country in the 1950s – particularly regarding the position of Islam in the state – would re-emerge. Constitutional changes would take place in stages, and would be based on specific needs. Only the body of the Constitution was to be changed, while the preamble, which describes the fundamental principles of the state, could not be touched.


During just 17 months in office, and faced with intense domestic and international pressure, the BJ Habibie government introduced more than 200 new laws and regulations, putting Indonesia well on its path toward democratic transition and decentralisation. President Habibie quickly made a clear break from the past by releasing political prisoners, revoking government control of the media, allowing freedom of expression and association, and lifting restrictions imposed by the New Order on political parties.


But the Habibie government did not attempt to amend the Constitution. Not only did it lack the time to do so, it lacked political legitimacy. The transitional national legislature was not yet truly representative, as it was still dominated by Golkar Party and the military.


Four constitutional amendments were made during the period of the first democratically elected legislature of 1999-2004. The constitutional amendments included stipulations that all members of parliament and regional representatives must be elected, thereby scrapping the military’s allocated seats, as well as providing for the direct election of the president and vice president.


Given the haste in which they were passed, and the difficulties in reaching agreements, the quality of much of the legislation passed in the early transition period was problematic. Several laws, such as the Regional Autonomy Law (No. 22 of 1999) and the General Elections Law (No. 4 of 1999), have been revised a number of times. It should be noted, however, that even after nearly two decades of reform, drafting good quality legislation that stands the test of time is still a challenge, because of the pace of change and conflicting political interests, which make ambitious and idealistic reform hard to achieve.


There are four areas, however, where Indonesia should be proud of its progress in reform. These involve the role of the military, relations between the key institutions of the state, centre-region relations and the role of civil society.


The most striking change that has taken place in Indonesia over the past 18 years is undoubtedly the ending of the military’s dual function (or dwi-fungsi) and the establishment of civilian supremacy over the military. Throughout the New Order period, the military had a social-political function, as well as a defence and security function. With dwi-fungsi, the military was omnipresent in Indonesian public life. It dominated the executive, had large numbers of seats in the legislature, and was involved in business. The police force was regarded as a junior branch of the military, with the military ultimately responsible for internal security.


With Indonesia’s transition to democracy, the military was gradually phased out of politics and business. Active military personnel are now banned from taking public office, and if they wish to run for an elected position, officers must resign first. By the 2004 general elections, all members of the legislature had to be elected, the military would no longer enjoy reserved seats in the legislature.


Besides being removed from politics, the military was also separated from the police. The military is now primarily responsible for national defence, while internal security is the domain of the police. The military can be called to assist the police, but that call has to be made by the government, rather than at the discretion of military commanders. Although there is still some way to go before the military becomes a truly professional force and effective civilian oversight is achieved, it is now quite inconceivable that the military would resume political power in Indonesia.


The second most important transformation was the clear separation of power between the executive, legislative and judicial arms of the state, ending the domination of the executive. While the Indonesian presidential system allows for a powerful executive, the legislative branch has become equally powerful, and is not just a rubber stamp, like in the Soeharto years. The judiciary is completely independent and the Constitutional Court enables the public to challenge laws that they regard as problematic. But with the strong system of checks and balances now in place, decision-making has become more difficult and time consuming.


The political process has been made even more complicated by the unwieldy multi-party system in which no party has obtained a clear majority. This has resulted in a presidential system with semi-parliamentary characteristics, manifest in a broad-based coalition cabinet, with the president and vice president elected by popular vote. This is a radical departure from the New Order period.


The third major transformation was the devolution of power to the regions. The New Order was highly centralised – most important decisions were made in Jakarta and there was little room for local initiatives. Regional grievances against perceived domination and exploitation by Jakarta, including armed insurgencies in Aceh and Papua, led to the introduction of wide-ranging decentralisation policies. The restive provinces of Aceh and Papua were given special autonomy at the provincial level, under which they were allowed to keep more of their revenues and adopt elements of local culture in public life, such as Islamic law in Aceh. For the rest of Indonesia, regional autonomy is implemented at the district and municipal levels, with the aim of bringing public services closer to the people and strengthening local democracy.


With regional autonomy, the central government only has full authority over seven areas: foreign policy, defence, security, justice, religion, monetary and fiscal policies. For people used to doing business under the New Order – when it was possible to seal a deal by securing the backing of a powerful general or a Soeharto scion in Jakarta, today’s highly decentralised Indonesia is undoubtedly bewildering. Power has not only been divided horizontally between the different branches of government, but also vertically, between the central, provincial and district administrations.


The fourth most visible change has been the growing vibrancy of civil society. Indonesia has a lively press, one of the freest in Asia. Civil society organisations are active in community development, advocacy and policy research. Labour unions are many and vocal. Public debates and at times unruly demonstrations have become common features of Indonesia’s political life. Indonesians are also avid users of social media and have a penchant for airing their views in public.


Also worthy of note is the increasing role of women in politics, though the numbers of women in top positions are still well below men. With the ascendancy of Megawati Soekarnoputri as president in 2001, the debate about whether women could become top political leaders effectively ended. Since then, more women have been elected as governors, regents, town mayors, and members of the national and regional legislatures.


With the fundamental transformations that have taken place, Indonesia is justly recognised as the third largest democracy in the world. But the transition to democracy has been a long process and at times messy. Harnessing the revolutionary zeal for change and directing it toward a more systematic reform process has not been easy. It needs patience, focus and an understanding that achieving democracy must be through democratic processes — there is no short-cut. Participation, inclusiveness and transparency are some of the keys to achieving political legitimacy.


An unpopular transitional government, as was the case of the Habibie government, could actually achieve a great deal because of external pressure, as well as the desire to prove its reformist credentials to both supporters and critics. The presence of unrelenting external pressure, both from domestic and international forces, was critical to progress.


But for comprehensive change, more time is clearly needed. Indonesia’s experience has shown that rushing through laws has resulted in poor quality and problems in implementation, because of contradictions with other laws and ambiguous articles that caused confusion.


Time is needed to develop consensus on long-term national objectives. Despite agreements on goals, politics and vested interests often make wholesale change impossible to achieve.  As far as Indonesia is concerned, consolidating and institutionalising democracy is still very much a work in progress.


This is an abridged version of Dewi Fortuna Anwar’s keynote address at the recent University of Melbourne conference on “Two Decades of Reformasi: Reflections on Social and Political Change.”



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