Over the past decade Indonesia’s political system has evolved from being one of South-East Asia’s most authoritarian to being its most democratic. This has been an extraordinary national achievement of which all Indonesians should be justifiably proud and relieved.
One of the hallmarks of the old system was to refer to its stability. I think this was a most inappropriate description. What we had then was merely tranquility. What’s the difference? Tranquility should be seen as akin to putting a big lid on a pot of water. Under the lid we have no idea what is going on - is the water warm, bubbling or boiling? Nobody can know until the whole thing suddenly explodes. Prior to the pot exploding all looks fine and tranquil, but certainly not stable.
Now that the lid has been removed in Indonesia, we can see where the hot spots are. We can also see that there are peaceful avenues for letting off steam. On balance the nation now has a strong measure of genuine stability rather than merely tranquility. Indeed, the country now enjoys political stability of a kind not seen in half a century. One key reason relates to the emergence of a substantial middle ground in Indonesian politics.
Unlike most countries in the West where the political divide between left and right is largely over the role of the state in the economy and socio-economic policies (left want more, right want less), in Indonesian the split is over the role of Islam in the state. This is pictured as a divide between those on the left who demand no role for Islam or any religion in the state sphere (the secularists) and those on the right who demand that Islam occupy a front and central role in the state (the Islamists).
In addition, Indonesia has a second divide (up and down) which might crudely be called a split between the elitists and populists. This divide is not about ideology but more about political culture although it may eventually morph into a kind of income or class divide. This shows itself in the way respective leaders and their parties communicate with their public. The elitists tend to adopt a more “technocratic” demeanour while the populists tend to adopt a more “folksy” one.
Electoral contests in Indonesia have traditionally revolved around both these divides. The only exceptions were the “transitional” elections of 1971 and 1999: 1971 involved a transition towards non-competitive elections conducted to re-affirm the constitutional status quo, while 1999 was a transition back to competitive elections conducted to elect or dismiss leaders.
Picturing the political divide
The first national elections were held in 1955. The two-dimensional picture of the results can be seen below. The percentage of the vote each party received is reflected in the size of its circle and excludes all parties securing less than 3 per cent of votes:
(See the key at the end of the article for the parties)
The most notable feature to emerge from this picture is the absence of any middle ground between the left and right. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the country was then unable to resolve the issue of the role of Islam within the state. This incapacity to come to an effective accommodation or acceptable consensus provided the basis for much ideological instability in the first decades of the country’s history.
Looking ahead almost 50 years to 2004 shows a very different picture.
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