After the Elections, After East Timor: What's Next for Indonesia?

Current Issues Brief 5 1999-2000

Dr Stephen Sherlock
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group
28 September 1999


Major Issues
The Parliamentary Elections of June 1999
The Winners and the Losers
The Votes
Seats in Parliament
The Next Step-Selecting the President
The Constitutional Process
The Presidential Race: Numbers, Negotiations, Coalitions
Indonesia's Political Future
The New President and Popular Legitimacy
New Parties, New Politics?
The Parliament, the President and the Constitution
The Future of the MPR: A Second Parliament?
East Timor and the Crisis of the Indonesian State
Appendix: Election Results


Indonesia Map

Source: United States Central Intelligence Agency, map no. (R02495)5-98

Major Issues

The Indonesian elections of June 1999 are generally considered to have been a success. Any irregularities did not invalidate the result. The party of Megawati Soekarnoputri took first place with 37.4 per cent, well short of a majority. Other leading parties were Golkar, the party of the New Order, the parties led by Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) and Amien Rais, and the United Development Party. Regional weighting of parliamentary seats favoured Golkar and disadvantaged Megawati and Gus Dur's parties.

Although the parliamentary elections took on the appearance of a presidential contest, the President will be selected by the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) in November. The MPR is made up of the parliament and regional and social group representatives. The main presidential contenders are Megawati, President Habibie and Gus Dur. The chief of the armed forces (TNI), General Wiranto, might be made Vice-President. Winning TNI's support is still crucial for any aspiring President of Indonesia. TNI has been more supportive of Megawati than Habibie. Amien Rais has been attempting to build a bloc of support to balance Megawati and Habibie. If Megawati does not become President it will be because she allowed herself to be isolated by the superior skills and resources of her rivals. Habibie has lost much of his remaining support because of scandals in the banking industry and events in East Timor.

There have been threats of mass mobilisation if Megawati is not made President or if Habibie is returned to office. Generally, however, the principle of acceptance of defeat and the idea of an opposition as an alternative government seems to have been accepted. But if 'money politics' is seen to be deciding the presidential selection, the legitimacy of Indonesia's next government may be seriously undermined. The deliberate depoliticisation enforced under the New Order means the Indonesian electorate is still unsophisticated. The viability of Indonesian democracy will depend on the fostering of a new generation of leaders who can shake off the traditions of elitist and patronage-based decision-making.

There is an urgent need to revive Indonesia's political institutions because they were emptied of their power by the Soeharto regime. Now that Indonesia has a parliament elected by the people, a new working relationship between the legislature and the executive will have to be established. Indonesia's system of government is basically presidential, but it has features of parliamentary government which could lead to disagreements and deadlock between three contending centres of authority. The possibility of military intervention might arise in these circumstances.

The events following the East Timor referendum exemplify the main features of the continuing political crisis in Indonesia and the pressing requirement for reform. As a transitional President with little legitimacy, it was inherently difficult for Habibie to manage the process of separating East Timor. But in his haste to gain political advantage for his presidential bid, Habibie's failure to build a coalition of support for his initiative within the military and other power centres, doomed it to a tragic result. The lengthy process of electing the president needs to be reformed to eliminate the vacuum of power and legitimacy which contributed to the East Timor debacle.

Having lost the vote, TNI appeared to see East Timor as a way of issuing a threat to other parts of the country, especially Aceh, that might want to separate from Indonesia. Events in East Timor showed that no major governmental decision can be made without the agreement of TNI, although it remains unclear what effects those events will have on the standing of the military in the longer term. Democracy in Indonesia will remain fragile until the country can win the loyalty of all its regions, complete the reconstruction of its political institutions and reconcile its armed forces to a withdrawal from civil politics.


Events in East Timor following the UN-supervised ballot on autonomy or independence aroused deep feelings amongst many people in Australia and the rest of the international community. The actions of the Indonesian armed forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia-TNI) in East Timor and the clear inability of the Government in Jakarta to control the situation on the ground in the territory cast a great deal of negative international attention on Indonesia. Questions were raised about President Habibie's hold on power and the continuing influence on civil government exercised by the TNI and their commander, General Wiranto. The possible withholding of international financial assistance threatened to bring about a renewed collapse of the country's currency at a time when Indonesia appeared to be emerging from its deep economic crisis.

The referendum in East Timor occurred in the circumstances of a country in the process of profound political change and economic turmoil. For any nation-state to attempt to handle the excision of a piece of what it regarded as its own territory while, at the same time, reconstructing its own political institutions and recovering from a massive recession was certain to be a traumatic process. In many ways, events as they have turned out have been the worst possible result for the Indonesian state: a loss of territory, the forfeiture of any possible international good will, widespread international opprobrium and renewed attention on the country's internal political problems.

This paper is not an analysis of the East Timor crisis itself, but analyses the events inside Indonesia since the parliamentary elections of June 1999 which provide a background to understanding Indonesia's actions over East Timor. The paper examines the June 1999 election, its conduct and results, and the processes that must be completed before Indonesia has an entirely new parliament and government. It discusses the major players in the new parliament and the negotiations amongst the likely contenders for the presidency. The paper presents a brief survey of the problems facing Indonesia's new democracy and the major problems yet to be resolved about the working of basic elements of the country's Constitution in the post-Soeharto era. It discusses the disastrous result of the East Timor referendum process as an illustration of the various elements of the continuing political crisis in Indonesia and the urgent need for reform in Indonesia's political institutions.

The paper can be read alone or as a supplement to three previous IRS publications on recent developments in Indonesia: Dr Stephen Sherlock, Indonesia's Dangerous Transition: The Politics of Recovery and Democratisation, Research Paper No. 18 1998-99, 28 April 1999 and in Crisis in Indonesia: Economy, Society and Politics, Current Issues Brief No. 13, 1997-98, 6 April 1998, and Dr Frank Frost and Dr Adam Cobb, The Future of East Timor: Major Current Issues, Research Paper No. 21 1998-99, 24 May 1999.

The Parliamentary Elections of June 1999

The Indonesian elections of June 1999 were the single most important result of the downfall of former President Soeharto's New Order regime in May 1998. After forty years of authoritarianism and the manipulation of constitutional processes, holding genuinely free elections was a symbol of Indonesia's progress to democracy. Elections for the single-chamber parliament, the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR, House of People's Representatives), held on 7 June 1999, were the culmination of the first stage of this journey. The country's last free elections were held in 1955, before the imposition of authoritarian 'Guided Democracy' by Indonesia's first President, Soekarno, in 1958. Stage-managed elections to a rubber-stamp DPR were held under the rule of President Soeharto after Soekarno's violent downfall in 1965-66, but all power had remained firmly in the hands of President Soeharto.

After the May 1998 mass uprising which led to Soeharto's resignation, then Vice-President Habibie was able to assume power only on the promise of holding new and democratic elections as soon as practicable. The second half of 1998 and first half of 1999 saw a flurry of activity as the authorities drew up the necessary legislative and administrative framework for free elections for the DPR. Fundamental questions, such as the number of representatives in the new parliament, whether the parliament would be elected on the basis of single-member constituencies or proportional representation and procedures for registering the proliferation of new parties, all had to be resolved within a matter of months. In addition, the technical issues involved in administering an election and ensuring its fairness in a huge, scattered country with thousands of remote islands (the third largest electorate in the world after India and the US) presented massive logistical problems.

Considering the scale of the task, the tightness of the timetable and the inexperience of the people and institutions involved, the elections are generally considered to have been a success.(1) Domestic and international observers and monitors noted incidents of misuse of official resources, including foreign aid, particularly by Golkar (the official party under the Soeharto regime) but concluded that the election could not be considered invalidated by widespread or systematic fraud or intimidation.(2)

Many international media reports focused on the extreme slowness in counting and on the postponement of the date for announcement of results. The issue also became a subject of criticism by student groups and non-government organisations (NGOs). The fear was that the delays provided opportunities for interference in the count and the manipulation of results. On the other hand, some international observers, including Australian election monitors, even thought that the slow count was evidence of the great, sometimes even excessive, care taken by election officials to ensure that the count was publicly seen to be fair. Delays occurred also because of the often cumbersome procedures followed. For example, the count in an entire region was sometimes not announced because the vote from just one remote area had not been received.(3) One important complicating factor rarely mentioned in the foreign media was that there were actually three elections being held at the one time; as well as the national parliament, electors were also voting for provincial and local government assemblies.

The DPR elected in the June 1999 elections is composed of 500 members. As well as the 462 elected members, the armed forces (previously known as ABRI, Angkatan Bersenjata Republik Indonesia) but since the separation of the police in April 1999, known as TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia) have retained 38 unelected appointees.

The Winners and the Losers

The Votes

The burst of enthusiasm for democracy after Soeharto's downfall gave rise to the creation of over 200 new political parties. Of these, 48 parties were ruled eligible to contest the election-according to regulations mainly designed to ensure that parties had support and organisational structures across a number of provinces. It quickly became clear, however, that no more than six or eight parties had the capacity to win significant representation in the DPR. Such expectations proved correct, with five parties winning over 90 per cent of the vote and most of the remainder received by another five or six parties. The other expectation which came to fruition was that no party would win anything approaching a majority and that negotiations and alliance-building would dominate post-election affairs (see Appendix for the main parties' support).

It is well known that, as expected, the party which took first place was Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDIP, Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle)-the party of Megawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of Soekarno, leader of Indonesia's independence movement and the country's first President. With 37.4 per cent of the vote, however, PDIP's plurality is well short of the level required to control the DPR on its own. Megawati's support is particularly strong in the important central islands of Java and Bali, but less extensive in the strongly Islamic provinces of Sumatra and in the outer islands in the east of the country.

The party whose support was most difficult to predict was that of Golkar, the official party of the New Order. On the one hand, Golkar suffered from its association with the Soeharto era, the unpopularity of President Habibie and from internal factionalism which almost prevented it from naming a Presidential candidate in time for the election. But, on the other hand, the party retained the support of many members of the bureaucracy (who were legally obliged to support Golkar under the New Order) and still has vast funds at its disposal, thanks to official largesse during the days of Soeharto. Some commentators predicted that Golkar would be obliterated by the widespread desire for change, but others thought that its resources would allow it to out-campaign its rivals. In the event, Golkar performed at the higher end of expectations, coming second after PDIP and taking 20.9 per cent of the vote. Although Golkar was abandoned by most voters in Java and Bali-the heartland of the urban-centred movement for reformasi-the party managed to retain support in many of the outer islands, including large islands such as Sulawesi and Kalimantan.

The party closely associated with the popular Islamic leader, Abdurrahman Wahid (usually known as Gus Dur), the Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (PKB, National Awakening Party), did not perform as well as many people had expected, at least partly because Nahdatul Ulama, the mass Islamic organisation led by Gus Dur, was not united in its support for the PKB. Although some predictions suggested PKB might rival Megawati's PDIP, the party was outpolled by Golkar and received 17.4 per cent. PKB's support is strongest in Java.

Apart from Golkar, the other main survivor from the time of the New Order has been the Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (PPP, United Development Party) which received 10.7 per cent of the vote. Although the PPP was one of the three parties allowed to contest the ritualised elections under the New Order, it did become a centre of limited criticism of Soeharto during the final years of his rule. The PPP combined its reputation for political independence with an appeal to some of the stricter and more doctrinal of Indonesia's Muslims and was able to win significant pockets of regional support, especially in Aceh and other parts of Sumatra.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for foreign observers was the poor showing of the Partai Amanat Nasional (PAN, National Mandate Party), led by the modernist Islamic leader Amien Rais. International media reportage of the events of May 1998 often exaggerated the role of Rais in leading the mass anti-Soeharto movement and his continued high foreign profile led to over-optimistic estimates of his party's support. The 7.3 per cent obtained by PAN also reflected the fact that the mass Islamic organisation previously led by Amien Rais (Muhammadiyah) did not provide full support for PAN. Many Islamic voters appear to have opted to support the PPP. PAN's result has greatly reduced Amien Rais' chances as a credible presidential candidate.

Seats in Parliament

The number of votes captured by each party does not directly translate into numbers of seats in the DPR. Following the passing of the new electoral laws in early 1999, the DPR is now elected by proportional representation. Constituencies are formed on the basis of Indonesia's 27 provinces(4), in a manner similar to the Australian Senate. Unlike the Senate, however, the number of representatives for each province is not equal, but is weighted according to the population of the provinces, which vary greatly in size.(5) Nevertheless, consideration is given to the special interests of smaller provinces by providing them with a greater number of parliamentary representatives per head of population. Thus the demographically and politically dominant island of Java (with about 110 million of Indonesia's 209 million people) has fewer representatives per head than the smaller provinces in Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Nusa Tenggara, Maluku and Irian Jaya.

Since, as indicated above, the major parties have an uneven regional distribution of support, the weighting to smaller provinces has had major implications for the parties' actual representation in the DPR. The big winners have been Golkar and the PPP, whose strength has been in the eastern islands and in Sumatra respectively. The losers, on the other hand, have been the parties with strong support in Java-Megawati's PDIP and Abdulrahman Wahid's PKB. While the PDIP's vote far exceeded the vote for Golkar (37.4 per cent to 20.9 per cent), the two parties' parliamentary representation are not far apart (154 seats to 120 seats). For the PKB the situation is far worse because although its 17.4 per cent vote was not far behind Golkar's 20.9 per cent, it has received only 51 seats to compare to Golkar's 120. The PPP won 58 seats for 10.7 per cent of votes compared to the PKB's 51 seats for 17.4 per cent votes. Three small Islamic parties which won 1.8, 1.3 and 0.9 per cent of the vote also benefited from the regional weighting by receiving 14, 6 and 6 seats respectively. (See Appendix for votes versus seats for the major parties.)

The Constitutional Process

Whatever the composition of the DPR, however, it provides only part of the answer to the question of who will be President. Although the parliamentary elections took on all the appearances of a presidential contest, with the main presidential contenders leading the various parties' campaigns, the June elections were only the beginning of the process of selecting the new President. Despite appearances, the elections were for the legislature not the executive and it is certainly not the case that a plurality, or even a majority, in the DPR will guarantee office.

The issue will not be decided until November 1999 when the Mejelis Pemusyawaratan Rakyat (MPR, People's Consultative Council) is convened. The MPR is unlike any assembly in either the Westminster or US-style system of government. Its main function is to select the President for a five-year term, but special supra-legislative sessions of the MPR may also be convened to pass decrees which form a framework to which legislation passed by the DPR must conform. For example, the special session of the MPR held in November 1998 decreed that the armed forces (TNI) would retain representation in the parliament, but it was the DPR itself which decided the exact number in legislation in early 1999.

The MPR is made up of 700 members, comprising the 500 members of the DPR (including the appointed TNI members), plus 135 regional representatives and 65 social group representatives (such as labour, business, religious and women's groups). The regional representatives are chosen by the regional legislatures and the social group representatives are determined by the General Elections Commission (KPU). At the time of writing, the identity of neither the regional nor the social group representatives had been finalised.

Both the President and the Vice-President are selected by the MPR, but candidates are not required to be members of either the MPR or the DPR. During the New Order, when Soeharto's selection as President was a foregone conclusion, the MPR decision was reached by a putative consensus. Javanese political culture stresses the importance of consensus decision-making and there is continuing discussion about whether the MPR will reach its decision with a formal consensus, with the real decision-making behind the scenes. It is quite likely, however, that major disagreements may emerge amongst the disparate elements in the MPR and the question will be forced to a majority vote, whether secret or public.

The Presidential Race: Numbers, Negotiations, Coalitions

The long process of finalising the composition of the MPR has, of course, not stood in the way of meetings and negotiations amongst the various parties and of daily press speculation about coalitions and deals between the contenders. Before the election, the main presidential contenders appeared to be Megawati Sukarnoputri, Gus Dur and Amien Rais, with Habibie seen to be an unlikely possibility. Compromise candidates such as the TNI Chief, General Wiranto, or the Sultan of Yogyakarta were also sometimes named in public discussion. Megawati's first place in the election has confirmed her as the most likely candidate, but has not ruled out other possibilities. Gus Dur remains a contender, although his poor health remains an obstacle and he has made inconsistent public statements on the question of his candidacy. Amien Rais's position has slipped badly because of his party's poor election performance. Despite President Habibie's huge problems with the East Timor situation and continuing corruption scandals, he was thrust back into the ranks of likely candidates following Golkar's good election result. Discussion about outside compromise candidates has largely centred on General Wiranto, at least before the East Timor events.

Although Megawati is well short of a parliamentary majority, the performance of her party in the election clearly positions her as the most likely candidate for President. She is regularly spoken of as 'the winner of the election', both in the media and by her own supporters, even though this is not strictly correct in either numerical or constitutional terms. Widespread enthusiasm that she is 'the candidate of the people', especially in the politically key provinces of Java and Bali, would lead to a great deal of disappointment and possible anger if she were not appointed to Indonesia's leading office.(6) The feeling that she has the right to the presidency may prove a failing, however, if she neglects the task of coalition building in the MPR. Not only have frequent questions been raised about Megawati's own political skills, but leaders seeking to work with her have reportedly had difficulty in finding spokespeople who are genuinely able to represent her position on the question of presidential alliances or on policy matters.(7) If Megawati does not become President it will because she allowed herself to be isolated by the superior skills and resources of her rivals.(8)

Many commentators have focused on the question of who is supported by the armed forces (TNI), since winning the military's support is still crucial for any aspiring President of Indonesia. This is not only because there are TNI representatives in the MPR (both from the DPR and from the regional legislatures), but because the military remains a key player in Indonesian politics, whatever the progress towards reformasi achieved since May 1998. Open or implied TNI support would influence the vote of many MPR representatives.

The importance of TNI support might even induce one or more presidential contenders to offer the Vice-Presidency to General Wiranto. Most observers are inclined to the view that the TNI is generally supportive of Megawati and opposed to Habibie. Despite Megawati's pedigree as the daughter of President Soekarno (overthrown by the military), she is seen as upholding the secular nationalist traditions usually espoused by military leaders. Megawati was even reported to have directed PDIP members of the new Jakarta regional assembly to support the TNI's candidate for Speaker of the assembly in return for TNI support for a PDIP delegate to represent Jakarta in the MPR.(9) Following the events in East Timor, however, there are indications that Megawati may be backing away from her relations with the military because of their actions in the territory.(10) President Habibie has been personally unpopular with the TNI leadership for many years and also is tainted with the Islamic connections long viewed with suspicion in army circles.

Habibie moved from a poor position before the elections to emerge as Megawati's main rival. Habibie's huge problem of legitimacy, as a Soeharto protégé and remnant of the New Order, was partially negated by Golkar's second place in the election, albeit gained with some help from the regional weighting of DPR seats. Habibie's other great strength continues to be Golkar's financial and organisational resources which will help grease the wheels of his coalition-building machine. Golkar's regional advantage in the DPR may also be boosted in the MPR because the greater number of provinces in the outer islands (where Golkar's support in the provincial assemblies also appears to be strong), will increase the number of regional representatives in the MPR who may support Habibie. This also applies to the PPP, many of whose leaders have come out in support for Habibie's presidency. In addition to the PPP, Habibie will undoubtedly seek the support of the smaller Islamic parties in the DPR as well as trying to win over at least some sections of the PKB and PAN. There has also been widespread speculation that many of the regional and social group representatives in the MPR (as well as some DPR members) will be susceptible to the attractions of 'money politics'-that is, Golkar has enough money to buy votes.

Whatever his advantages, Habibie's chances in the presidential race have steadily worsened since the election. The weakening of his position has been caused by the results and aftermath of the East Timor ballot and by the exposure of his links to corruption in the banking industry. In the case of the first, press and public opinion appears to have cast Habibie as the person most to blame for 'losing' East Timor. Habibie took the decision to hold a ballot in East Timor with little or no consultation with his Cabinet or TNI. He hoped to turn a quick solution to Indonesia's most troublesome foreign policy issue into a political victory. In the event, however, the actions of TNI and the militias they sponsored, have turned the affair into a disaster for Habibie's presidency. Although TNI has been bitterly attacked by some Indonesians for their responsibility for the violence in East Timor, nationalist reaction against the arrival of foreign troops seems to have deflected much of the blame away from the military to Habibie.(11)

Despite the almost exclusive attention given to the East Timor issue in Australia and elsewhere, however, Habibie has been at least as badly damaged by corruption scandals in the banking industry.(12) Support for Habibie plummeted in public opinion polls after revelations in late July about the illegal transfer of around $A100 million from Bank Bali to accounts controlled by Golkar. The scandal was revealed as the Bank Bali was in the process of being taken over by the Government as part of the restructuring of the banking industry after its virtual collapse in 1998. An independent audit of the transactions found 'numerous indicators of fraud, noncompliance, irregularity, misappropriation, undue preferential treatment, concealment, bribery and corruption'.(13) The money is widely believed to have been planned for President Habibie's re-election campaign and the scandal has implicated a number of high government officials.

For many Indonesians, the affair not only undermined trust in President Habibie himself, but also in the processes of reform such as the restructuring of the banking sector. It suggests that nothing has changed in the conduct of government despite the overthrow of the New Order. Habibie and the recently dissolved DPR have also came under heavy criticism for proposing a state security bill in parliament which critics argued would endanger press freedom, civil liberties and human rights. The legislation, passed in the very last days of the old DPR, would allow the President to declare martial law without reference to parliament and boost the powers of the police and the security forces.

The controversial bill has given rise to a large number of protest demonstrations outside the DPR and other parts of Jakarta. The Habibie Government's decision to postpone implementation of the law is unlikely to appease critics or to slow the mass mobilisation against it. Police attacks on demonstrators, resulting in possibly seven deaths, have fuelled further protests. In an ominous sign for President Habibie, student demonstrators have been joined in their battles with police by people from surrounding residential areas, a development recalling the process which led to the downfall of President Soeharto.

Even before East Timor, the Bank Bali affair and the state security bill, many Indonesians did not regard Habibie as a legitimate President. The prospect of his return to the presidency has been greeted with threats of mass demonstrations by student and other organisations and by supporters of Megawati. The odium attached to the Soeharto legacy and his continued decline in credibility has also undermined Habibie's support within Golkar itself. Golkar is deeply factionalised and both the Chairman of the party, Akbar Tanjung, and the Vice Chairman, Marzuki Darusman, were opposed to naming Habibie as Golkar's presidential candidate. Tanjung has attempted to create the public impression that the party's internal division are a struggle between pro-reform and anti-reform opinion. He has increasingly equivocated about Habibie's candidacy, first saying that the party would 'still try to sell' the President right up the time of the MPR, then, as Habibie's popularity has plummeted, saying Golkar would review his candidacy at a meeting in mid-October.(14) Golkar's problem, however, is that it has no popular, high profile candidate to put in Habibie's place.

Amien Rais's efforts to re-establish his own position in the presidential race have included trying to build what he has termed the 'axis force' which would make a 'political triangle' to balance Megawati and Habibie. Rais is apparently aiming to capitalise on apprehensions about Megawati's complacency and lack of policy. He reportedly said that he found it:

impossible to accept the political uncertainty because Megawati is so tight-lipped about everything. We have to be creative and move forward.(15)

Rais has claimed the support of most of the smaller Islamic parties in the DPR, as well as the PPP, despite the latter's indications of support for Golkar.

In any coalition-building negotiations, a pivotal role will inevitably be played by Gus Dur, both by virtue of the PKB's representation in the MPR and because of his own personal influence. Gus Dur's response to the formation of the 'axis force' was, however, typical of his rather opaque political style. After being approached by Amien Rais, Gus Dur said he was 'ready' to be nominated as the presidential candidate for the grouping, but he did not appear to commit himself to active support of the idea.(16) Some leaders of Gus Dur's PKB have expressed little enthusiasm about the 'axis force' and others are continuing to express their support for Megawati.(17) Gus Dur has continued to send signals that he would support Megawati for President as the most successful candidate in the DPR elections. The tolerant, even nominal, commitment to Islam represented by Gus Dur and his followers is seen by many Indonesians to make the PKB a natural ally of the secular nationalism championed by Megawati. Gus Dur's antipathy to doctrinal or 'fundamentalist' Islam and to Amien Rais himself is well known. Some political figures have expressed doubts about the sincerity of Gus Dur's agreement to be nominated as the candidate for the 'axis force', one even suggesting that he was 'just joking, the way he usually does'.(18)

In truth, it is extremely difficult to know how much weight to give to public pronouncements from the various national leaders. All of them have been schooled in the politics of backroom negotiations which dominated the New Order. In this style of politics, statements to the media are often read as coded messages to fellow negotiators rather than appeals to the public. While this is hardly unknown in Western democracies, politics in Indonesia have only just begun to emerge from the days of a monopoly by a handful of leaders and from the mass depoliticisation deliberately fostered by President Soeharto. Moreover, unlike the party discipline often exercised in Western countries, Indonesia's party allegiances remain very fluid. Many of the parties are new and all are composed of disparate groupings divided by personal, regional and ideological influences. It remains to be seen how effectively prominent national leaders can translate their stated intentions into effective action. When it comes to the actual choice by the individuals in the MPR, personal connections and financial inducements might tip the balance in unexpected ways.

There are any number of possible scenarios which could be constructed to envisage the shape of Indonesia's new government. Nevertheless, the most likely contender for President still remains Megawati Sukarnoputri in a coalition of some kind. Her key concession may be to offer the Vice-President's position to one of the other main contenders or to a compromise candidate such as General Wiranto. She also has the option of offering leading positions in her Cabinet to other party leaders or to elevate one of these positions to that of First Minister. It has also been suggested that she might offer the position of Speaker of the DPR or MPR in return for support for her presidency. If, however, she is outmanoeuvred and isolated (as suggested above), it might be a group of her rivals who come to such arrangements. It is interesting to note that one Jakarta tabloid newspaper drew up a list of five possible scenarios for DPR coalitions, only one of which had PDIP with an absolute majority.(19)

Indonesia's Political Future

The New President and Popular Legitimacy

After the downfall of President Soeharto, many student groups and other organisations refused to accept the legitimacy of President Habibie. By extension they questioned the legitimacy of any election called under his authority and under laws passed by Soeharto's rubber-stamp legislature. Calls for a boycott of the election were largely ignored, however, as people took up the opportunity to express their genuine political feelings for the first time in decades. Questions about the credibility of an election dominated by candidates who had (with the possible exception of Megawati) coexisted with and provided little challenge to the New Order were swamped by the enthusiasm of an unsophisticated electorate.

Until the result of the presidential selection is determined, it is not possible to say with complete assurance that the election result has been generally accepted. Commentators have repeatedly warned of the possibility of mass unrest if the MPR returns Habibie to power. Supporters of Megawati, who consider her the winner of the election, have sworn to surround or even occupy the MPR if it appears that their leader is not to be made President. Supporters of Golkar and other parties have, in turn, threatened to counter any such mobilisation with their own forces.(20) There have been reports of the formation of militias by the main parties.(21) Similar fears expressed about the election campaign period did not, however, prove to be justified.

One important ground rule that does seem to have been accepted to date is the principle of acceptance of defeat and the idea of an opposition as an alternative government. In some elections in developing countries after a period of authoritarian rule, most notably in a number of African countries, winning parties have adopted a 'winner takes all' mentality, matched by losers who fear (at times with justification) that election defeat can only mean permanent exclusion from the spoils of office. Such a political culture rarely provides the basis for sustained democratic government and usually slips back into conflict and military intervention. In Indonesia, however, the indications are good that the June elections may have successfully begun a transition to a period of peaceful changes of government.

New Parties, New Politics?

The first test of such optimism will depend on the result of the MPR General Session in November. A successful result would not only be one that produces a President who satisfies popular sentiment, but one reached through a transparently fair process. If the oft-repeated fears that 'money politics' might prove the most powerful force in the selection come to fruition, the legitimacy of Indonesia's next government may be seriously undermined. Such an outcome would also weaken any emerging popular faith in democratic politics.

One result of the depoliticisation which was deliberately enforced under the New Order was that the election revolved around the personalities of a few leading candidates. Many observers have noted the great trust placed in a figure such as Megawati purely because of her family background, a trust that does not seem to be matched by her development of political philosophy or policy. Amien Rais is even said to have harmed his own campaign by focusing on ideas and on ways to heal the divisions in Indonesian society. The lack of sophistication of most of the Indonesian electorate made it easy for leaders who emerged from the New Order to campaign on image and grand promise. But the faith invested in those leaders could quickly turn to disillusionment if the daily lives of the mass of Indonesians does not seem to improve.

In the longer term, the health and viability of Indonesian democracy will depend on the fostering of a new generation of parties and leaders who can shake off the traditions of elitist and patronage-based decision-making and respond to the demands of a maturing electorate.(22) Indonesia is a rapidly changing, urbanising society, with traditional social relations and attitudes co-existing in uneasy juxtaposition with new morés and the spread of 'globalised' consumer culture. A new middle class and working class, subjected to the demands and opportunities of a modern industrialised economy, are unlikely to accept the blandishments of today's political figures for an indefinite time. Each successive future election in Indonesia promises to be an increasingly complex affair.

The Parliament, the President and the Constitution

Under the New Order the overwhelmingly important centre of power was the person of President Soeharto. In formal terms, the Republic of Indonesia operated according to the provisions of the presidential 1945 Constitution, rather than the parliamentary 1949 Constitution.(23) But with Soeharto's consolidation of power in the years after the coup of 1965-66, virtually all institutions of government besides the armed forces were rendered impotent. Elections were a ritual giving the illusion of popular sovereignty, the parliament was a rubber stamp and the decisions of the MPR were a foregone conclusion.

With the collapse of the New Order, there is suddenly an urgent need to revive the institutions of the 1945 Constitution which were emptied of their power by the Soeharto regime. Basic issues about the very fundamentals of state power in Indonesia will have to be resolved before democratic rule can really be re-established. What will be the relationship between the Parliament and the President? Is Indonesia likely to develop into a parliamentary or presidential democracy or into a system with elements of both? What is the future of the MPR? Will it become more than an electoral college for the presidential selection? What will be the place of the military, the judiciary and the bureaucracy in democratic Indonesia?

Now that Indonesia has a parliament elected by the people, the separation between the legislature and the executive provided for in the 1945 Constitution may mean that Indonesian politics take on features of politics in the US. This would ensure stability of government, in that the President is guaranteed a five year term regardless of changing alliances and coalitions on the floor of the DPR. Since, for the foreseeable future, no party is likely to win a majority in the DPR, a parliamentary system would probably consign Indonesia to a succession of short-lived unstable coalition governments. For Indonesians with a memory of the instability experienced by the country in the 1950s under the parliamentary 1949 Constitution, continuity of executive government is the great strength of the current presidential system. The recent experience of India, with repeated elections producing unworkable coalitions, suggests that developing countries with large diverse populations may find a parliamentary system inherently difficult.(24)

Separation of powers also strengthens the capacity of the legislature to maintain the public accountability of the President. The recent experience of a President who was accountable to virtually no-one provides a forceful incentive to maximise the role of parliament in scrutinising government. The DPR already has a well developed committee system to examine legislation (albeit with little effect under the New Order), a system which could be expanded to include investigation of a full range of policy questions and governmental actions. Even the old DPR, still composed of members hand-picked under the New Order, became more assertive in its relations with the President in its final months, calling on President Habibie to appear before it to account for his actions over East Timor.

The principal problem of a presidential system, however, is the strong possibility of the kind of deadlocks between the executive and legislature that have afflicted government in the US. Any new Indonesian president will have a huge program of controversial reform to undertake, most of which will require legislation, yet he/she is very unlikely to have a controlling majority in the DPR. The possibility of disagreements between parliament and president is therefore very high. In some developing countries with US-style presidential systems, particularly in Latin America, such differences have led to major confrontations between the two arms of government, leading to military intervention and the end of democratic rule. Some commentators have expressed the fear that a similar future may await Indonesia and have advocated a return to parliamentary government.

For the immediate future, however, it seems unlikely that Indonesia will opt to change its current form of presidential government. Therefore, once the new President is selected, the two arms of government will need to develop some form of working relationship. Short of a deadlock and the threat of military intervention, there is the danger that if the President is facing the obstruction of its bills in the DPR he/she may resort to 'money politics' to induce individual DPR members to support government legislation. Equally, there would be the temptation for the President to try to govern in circumvention of the DPR.(25) It would be a tragedy for Indonesia if the corruption of governmental institutions and the undermining of constitutional processes which was rampant under the New Order were to be recreated in new ways under ostensibly democratic politics. Much will depend on the quality of the new members of parliament and on the pressure that can be applied on all parts of government by the press, non-government actors and the public at large. There has also been discussion in Indonesia about the need to strengthen the independence of the judiciary and to introduce or strengthen accountability through bodies such as the audit office, ombudsman and the National Human Rights Commission.

The Future of the MPR: A Second Parliament?

Apart from the question of the relations between the President and the DPR, some commentators have raised the possibility that the MPR may begin to play an increasingly powerful role. A major complication of the 1945 Constitution is that, although providing for a fundamentally presidential system, it contains elements of a parliamentary system which could place major constraints on the power of the President. Unlike most presidential systems, where the President is popularly elected, the selection of the Indonesian President by the MPR means that a government is potentially dependent on the MPR (and through it to the DPR) in a manner not unlike a parliamentary government. Under the New Order the MPR was convened only once every five years and was a rubber-stamp for President Soeharto. But according to the Constitution, supreme sovereignty is vested in the MPR and it has the power to 'enact the Constitution and the guidelines of state policy'.(26) The Constitution also provides for the MPR to meet more regularly than every five years and it has become a convention that the President must address the MPR and provide an account of how he/she has implemented the Constitution and the decrees of the MPR.

The possibility that the MPR might decide to meet annually or even more regularly should not be ruled out. Special sessions of the MPR, such as the one that was held in November 1998, could become a more regular feature of the political scene. Such sessions could take a rather more robust interpretation of their power to call the President to account. A special session of the MPR could conceivably also take on the right to declare that the existing President had inadequately accounted for his actions and to elect a new incumbent.

If the MPR did become more prominent and assertive, the President might find it necessary to try to maintain a supportive majority in the Assembly in order to ensure the longevity of his/her incumbency. At present the President requires only a passing majority for the one five-yearly session of the MPR and can survive without a majority in the DPR. Such a development would take Indonesia in the direction of a hybrid parliamentary-presidential system with three centres of political power and one with multiple opportunities for disagreement and deadlock.

At this stage, such possibilities exist in the realm of speculation, but the fact that they are possible underscores the fundamental nature of the questions that confront the makers of Indonesia's immediate political future. The Indonesian state is being remade at a rapid pace and the shape of things to come is yet to be clear.

East Timor and the Crisis of the Indonesian State

For many people in Australia and the rest of the international community, the actions of the Indonesian military in East Timor exposed the TNI as a violent and vindictive force which cared nothing for Indonesia's international reputation in its desire to punish the people of the territory for voting to separate from Indonesia. But whatever the motivations of the TNI leaders in East Timor and in Jakarta, their actions cannot be understood without reference to the deep crisis in the Indonesian state revealed by events in East Timor.

There are a number of elements in the crisis which contributed to the tragedy in East Timor. The first contributory factor was the standing of the office of the President in post-Soeharto Indonesia as well as the particular character of the current incumbent. As has already been mentioned, President Habibie was seen as a merely transitional figure by many Indonesians and his roots in the New Order fatally tainted his legitimacy in office. For such a President to carry out the inherently dangerous process of allowing a piece of the territory of Indonesia to opt to separate itself was certain to cause major difficulties. This would have been the case whoever was in the position.

But the manner in which President Habibie himself chose to attempt this (hazardous) exercise exacerbated the potential problems. Many commentators have observed that Habibie has failed to build bridges with the other powerful actors in the Indonesian state. He came to office purely as a result of the patronage of President Soeharto and has not been able to break down his political isolation. According to most analyses, he continues to rely on the advice of a small group of supporters and neglects consultation even with his own Cabinet. The decision to allow a referendum in East Timor (announced on 27 January 1999) was made without effective efforts to win the agreement of key figures in the Cabinet, the DPR or, most fatefully, the military.

In fact, the decision on a ballot in East Timor appears to have been made as a means of establishing Habibie's authority in time for the MPR session in November 1999.(27) As has been mentioned, a successful resolution of the intractable and worsening diplomatic problem of East Timor would have been a major political coup for Habibie in his campaign for re-election. In his haste to register progress on the issue, Habibie not only overlooked the need to create a coalition of support in Jakarta, but also to make the necessary preparations in Timor itself. East Timorese pro-independence organisations had for many years argued that a transition from integration to independence should take place over an extended transition period of up to ten years or more. Their proposals included a period of autonomy within Indonesia to allow for the development of an indigenous Timorese political and institutional infrastructure and an Indonesian military withdrawal before a referendum on self-determination.

Far from being a political coup, events in East Timor have turned out to be a disaster for President Habibie. The actions of the military demonstrated Habibie's lack of control over the instruments of governmental power and yet, at the same time he has received the large part of the blame for losing part of Indonesian territory. The initial refusal to allow the early arrival of peacekeepers was followed by what many Indonesians saw as capitulation in the face of a falling currency and possible withdrawal of vital international financial assistance. The demonstration of Indonesia's economic vulnerability was followed by a perceived intrusion on Indonesian sovereignty by foreign military forces.(28) In international terms, the referendum result (in which the autonomy proposal was rejected by 78.5 of the vote) showed Indonesia's complete failure to win the support of the Timorese population. The handling of the referendum process has meant that the country forfeited any international goodwill that might have been gained by allowing an act of East Timorese self-determination.(29)

The failure to win the agreement of the military to the East Timor referendum proposal (at anything other than a rhetorical level) has complicated the already critical issue of the role of TNI in the post-Soeharto order. TNI was already deeply divided within its own ranks over the question of ending or modifying its dual function role in Indonesian society. The armed forces have suffered from a continuing decline in their prestige from the final years of the New Order. The TNI leadership, however, continues to see itself as the only effective guarantor of the unity of the diverse Indonesian state and of internal security. Many officers are resentful that their efforts to enforce unity and security in places such as East Timor, Aceh and Irian Jaya have brought TNI growing domestic and international criticism. Evidence that the activities of the security forces have been as much a cause as a solution to the unrest in these areas is dismissed as a betrayal of the soldiers who have lost their lives in the conflicts. In the case of East Timor, the territory was effectively a TNI fiefdom and many officers have benefited materially from the military's domination of economic activity and control of the province's development budget. The loss of the territory could only be a huge political, psychological and financial blow to the TNI.(30)

The armed forces appeared to have calculated that the result of the referendum would have been close. But violence by the militias and their obvious support by TNI may have increased the vote for independence rather than deterring it. On the assumption of a close vote, TNI's intention may have been to use the militia violence to create the impression of a large-scale upsurge of pro-integration sentiment to create a pretext for pressuring the Government and the MPR session in November to reject the result of the referendum and refuse to grant independence.(31) With the overwhelming vote for independence, however, TNI officers in East Timor appear to have concluded that the remaining option was to allow the militias to wreak vengeance. The violence and destruction in East Timor would still be a salutary warning for pro-independence forces in Aceh and Irian Jaya.

The use of events in East Timor for their demonstration effect in other parts of the country highlights the clear linkages amongst the various elements of the crisis in Indonesia. Part of TNI's concern about the referendum in East Timor was obviously that it would provide inspiration for other separatist movements. This has indeed been the case in Aceh, where the independence movement has been growing in recent years and has recently begun a campaign for a ballot on self-determination for the province in western Sumatra. Although, as mentioned above, many critics of TNI argue that human rights abuses in Aceh have fuelled rather than quelled separatist sentiment, TNI and most of the Government in Jakarta appear to still regard the maintenance of national unity as a security issue to be resolved by force of arms.(32) It has also been argued on many occasions that TNI is fully aware of the effect of its actions on worsening conflicts, but that an outbreak of violence creates proof of the need to maintain a prominent military role in internal security. TNI stokes the fires, it is argued, to show it is still needed as a fire brigade.

One of the many pressing tasks for the new government will be to continue reforms to rectify the imbalance in power and resources between Jakarta and the provinces. Many of the resource rich outer islands consider that their contribution to national wealth is not matched by the share of revenues they receive compared to populous Java. The June elections have established democratically elected legislatures in each of the provinces, but unless people in outer areas see real progress towards decentralisation, these legislatures could simply become a focus for the fissiparous tendencies inherent in a diverse archipelagic country. The traditional security approach to these issues has not only failed, but it strengthens the power of the military and presents a major potential threat to human rights and democratic politics. Events surrounding the East Timor referendum have demonstrated these threats only too clearly.

The urgency of the need for reforms of all kind underscores the huge problem of the slow and cumbersome procedures for a change of government, which is the final dimension of the crisis behind developments in East Timor. The extension in office of a President with little legitimacy or support made the possibility of building a consensus for action very difficult. Yet, at the same time, it created an incentive for the President to act in a precipitate and ill-judged manner. Equally, TNI leaders felt few qualms about effectively ignoring directions given by the President. Had a new democratically elected government been sworn in soon after the June elections, the timing and preparations for the East Timor referendum might have allowed a less traumatic transfer of sovereignty to the people of East Timor. The long interregnum between the DPR election and convening of the MPR did not matter when the result was a foregone conclusion. But, in a truly democratic polity, the handover from one government to another needs to occur in the shortest practical time in order to prevent a vacuum of legitimacy and decision-making.

Of course, it could be argued that the new government might have refused to honour President Habibie's promise to hold a referendum and that, therefore, the governmental malaise in Indonesia provided the only likely opportunity for the people of East Timor for an act of self-determination. It was surely possible, however, for the East Timorese to have had their desire for independence fulfilled without death and destruction being visited upon them and without so much damage being done to Indonesia's international reputation and internal political stability-even if it did mean the process took a rather longer time.


Indonesia today is passing through a time of great promise but great peril. Successful elections at national and regional level in June have held out the promise of continuing progress towards democracy. In November 1999, Indonesia will almost certainly have its first peaceful transition to a new President after a long history of turbulence and dictatorship. The prolonged and complex system for selecting the President, however, has created an extended period of uncertainty. It is still not at all clear who will actually become Indonesia's fourth President, although Megawati Soekarnoputri remains the most likely candidate.

The fact that a product of the Soeharto era, B. J. Habibie, could have been seen as having a real chance of returning to office (at least before Bank Bali and East Timor), is symptomatic of the continuing grip of New Order politics on Indonesia. The armed forces, the mainstay of the New Order, are still a powerful force whose support is important for any prospective presidential candidate. The events in East Timor showed that no major governmental decision can be made without the agreement of TNI, although it remains unclear what effects those events will have on the standing of the military in the longer term. Apart from TNI, Indonesian politics remain dominated by a small number of political leaders, all of whom had a place in the New Order, even if they occasionally played an oppositional role. The Indonesian electorate is still an unsophisticated one, a product of the deliberate depoliticisation of society enforced by the New Order. Rapid economic and social change, however, is providing the basis for new social classes and movements which have the potential to challenge the supremacy of traditional elite politics.

The events in East Timor were an illustration of the elements of the political crisis in Indonesia today that presents a major challenge to the growth and maturation of democracy. The East Timor referendum was an historic government initiative with the potential to solve one of Indonesia's greatest international problems, but it was sabotaged by a military who saw the initiative as a threat to its interests. The tragic result of the East Timor decision, however, also had its origins in the fact that it was made by a President with major problems of legitimacy, kept in office by a constitutional technicality left over from the previous discredited regime. The authority of the government of any state would be tested if it allowed the separation of part of its territory. For a government of little legitimacy to do so, against the wishes of its own armed forces and with other seccessionist movements looking on, was a dangerous exercise indeed. Democracy in Indonesia will remain fragile until the country can win the loyalty of all its regions, complete the reconstruction of its political institutions and reconcile its armed forces to a withdrawal from civil politics.


  1. Asian Wall Street Journal, 27 July 1999, p. 3.

  2. The official Election Supervisory Committee was quoted as saying that the election was 'relatively free and fair' and that irregularities were not systemic and 'could still be tolerated', although the irregularities 'should be taken care of by the authorities and these should be taken as a lesson to improve the quality of the next election'. Jakarta Post, 10 August 1999. The Australian Observer Mission 'observed some minor irregularities [that] ... would not have had a significant impact on the overall result'. It concluded that most problems could be 'attributed to the fact that the election was implemented in such a short time frame and involved a newly designed and untried system'. Report of the Australian Observer Mission to the 1999 Indonesian Election, p. 7.

  3. Jakarta Post, 7 July 1999, p. 1.

  4. East Timor is the 27th province of Indonesia.

  5. The three provinces of Java, for example, have populations in the range of 30-40 million while many of the eastern island provinces have around 2-4 million people each. At the time of writing, East Timor remains the smallest province, with about 800 000 people.

  6. 'Rakyat suka Mega', 'the people love Megawati' is a common sentiment heard on the streets of Jakarta.

  7. Susan Sim, 'Indonesian elections: Take nothing for granted', Straits Times, 7 August 1999.

  8. Tjipta Lesmana, 'Long way to go for Megawati', Jakarta Post, 9 August 1999.

  9. Jakarta Post, 20 September 1999, p. 3. Megawati's actions caused considerable opposition amongst rank and file members of the PDIP, with demonstrations being held in protest.

  10. Business Week, 27 September 1999.

  11. A particularly strong critique of the TNI in East Timor was published by Desi Anwar in Jakarta Post, 14 September 1999.

  12. 'In Jakarta, News of Timor is Barely a Blip', New York Times, 17 September 1999.

  13. South China Morning Post, 17 September 1999.

  14. Jakarta Post, 16 August 1999, p. 2, 20 September 1999, p. 2.

  15. Jakarta Post, 10 August 1999, p. 2.

  16. Jakarta Post, 9 August 1999, p. 1.

  17. Jakarta Post, 10 August 1999, p. 2, 31 August 1999, p. 2.

  18. Jakarta Post, 11 August 1999, p. 2, 31 August 1999, p. 2.

  19. Oposisi, 13 September 1999.

  20. Jakarta Post, 31 August 1999, p. 2.

  21. See Far Eastern Economic Review, 19 August 1999, pp. 20-22 for a discussion of some of these issues.

  22. The 1945 Constitution was proclaimed with the declaration of independence of that year, but was superseded by a new Constitution in 1949 when the independence movement finally gained complete control of the country. The parliamentary-based 1949 Constitution operated until President Soekarno's declaration of 'Guided Democracy' in 1958, when the presidentially-based 1945 Constitution was once again made the basis of government.

  23. Even India's era of stable parliamentary government (from 1947 to 1977) was based on the dominance of the Congress Party which had lead the country's independence movement. Once the pre-eminence of Congress (itself essentially a coalition of regional groupings) was eroded, India's party system splintered along the lines of the country's regions and diverse population. Indonesia, also geographically and socially diverse, has never had even India's advantage of a single party with a claim on the heritage of the independence movement.

  24. Article 22 of the Constitution gives the President the power to 'issue government regulations in lieu of law', provided the regulations 'obtain the consent of the House of Representatives during its subsequent session'.

  25. Article 3 of the Constitution.

  26. David Jenkins, 'A General squeeze and Habibie quickly succumbs', Sydney Morning Herald, 10 September 1999.

  27. The role of the letter from the Australian Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, to President Habibie in December 1998 in contributing to Habibie's decision has been given great prominence in the Australian media. It seems more likely, however, that the letter was of secondary importance and has become one of the ways in which the Indonesian Government has sought to shift responsibility for the East Timor problem onto Australia.

  28. Far Eastern Economic Review, 23 September 1999, pp. 8-10.

  29. 'Indonesia: A Pariah State?', Business Week, 27 September 1999.

  30. Hamish McDonald, 'Wiranto may be ready to dump tainted generals', Sydney Morning Herald, 14 September 1999. David Jenkins, 'Long shadow of the puppet master', Sydney Morning Herald, 9 September 1999.

  31. 'Indonesia: A Pariah State?', Business Week, 27 September 1999.

  32. Robert Lowry, The Armed Forces of Indonesia, Sydney, 1996, pp. 147-180.

Appendix: Election Results


% Votes

No. Seats

Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan

Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle

(Megawati Soekarnoputri)



Partai Golongan Karya




Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa

National Awakening Party

(Aburrahman Wahid)



Partai Persatuan Pembangunan

United Development Party



Partai Amanat Nasional

National Mandate Party

(Amien Rais)



Partai Bulan Bintang

Crescent Star Party



Partai Keadilan

Justice Party



Partai Nahdlatul Umat

Nahdlatul Umat Party



Partai Keadilan dan Persatuan

Justice and Unity Party



Partai Demokrasi Kasih Bangsa

Democratic Love the Nation Party



Others (11)



Total Elected Seats



Tentara Nasional Indonesia

Indonesian Armed Forces (appointed seats)



Total Seats in Parliament (DPR)