Currents undermining Indonesian political stability


It is 13 years since the Indonesian dictator Suharto was forced to resign by a student-led mass protest movement. The current president, Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono, will complete his second five-year term in 2014. At the level of the state and government, Indonesia has experienced another extended period of “stability”. There have been no destabilising riots, as used to occur; no major cabinet crisis; no serious challenges to the presidency, as occurred in 2001, when the parliament impeached President Abdurrahman Wahid.

Wahid was impeached on corruption charges, but this was primarily a frame-up. He had alienated the spectrum of right-wing religious parties by declaring his support for the lifting of the ban on Marxism-Leninism and for apologising to the victims of the 1965 anti-communist violence. He had also allowed the West Papuan flag to be raised in West Papua alongside the Indonesian flag and had promised a referendum in Aceh, although he later backtracked on that. These issues further alienated the conservative parliament. Not only the right-wing Islamic parties but also the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, headed by his vice-president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, turned against him. After he was impeached, Megawati was elected president by the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR). The 10 years since have been marked by “stable”, conservative rule.


The “stability” has been marred by the emergence of some threatening underlying trends. In 2001, the first suicide bombing – the attacks on Bali night clubs – took place. There have been several suicide bombings and other bomb attacks since then. The Yudhoyono government has escalated the police response, resulting in increased and intensive surveillance of Islamic activists as well as shoot-outs in which Islamic cell members have been killed. This appears to be consolidating as an ongoing trend.

The police response has brought a decline so far in attacks against “Western” targets, but is hardening the jihadist opposition to the government. The most recent bomb attacks have been against Indonesian police, including a suicide bombing in a mosque used by police officers. This program has been carried out with strong United States and Australian police and financial support.

While the Yudhoyono government has implemented a severe police response against the fundamentalist, jihadist groups, it has been accommodating to groups making violent attacks against Christian and dissident Islamic sects. There have been attacks against the mosques and prayer houses of the Ahmadiyah sect as well as against some Christian churches. Prosecutors have, for example, demanded only seven-month sentences for members of the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam – FPI) who attacked and beat to death three members of the Ahmadiyah sect and injured five others. Ahmadiyah members who defended themselves in the attack were also charged. Similar leniency has occurred in the prosecution of FPI or others who have attacked church members. Yudhoyono government figures make very weak criticisms of these groups, while high-level police figures continue to associate publicly with the FPI.

The other area where violence continues is in the repressive atmosphere in West Papua. Demonstrations calling for a referendum on independence have increased in size, often initiated or led by students, and some of these demonstrations have been violently dispersed. Where killings or other violent attacks, including torture of Papuan activists, have led to arrests of army personnel or police, sentences have been extremely light. There have also been strikes at the massive Freeport mine. Papua remains a time bomb that could detonate easily at any time. The increased confidence of the conservative Islamic groups that have been attacking Ahmadiyah and some churches can also lead to explosions of tensions at a later date.

Corruption scandals

Adding to the general tension at street level is a combination of non-stop exposures of corruption cases and their weak handling by the government and the sense of economic stagnation for the mass of the population. The Indonesian economy is growing, as is the Indonesian middle class. Some Indonesian economists claim that the middle class is growing by 1 million people per year. The World Bank claims that 50 million people have joined “middle income” layers in Indonesia since 2003, bringing it up to half of the 238 million population. There is little doubt that the number of those better off is steadily increasing, creating a sizeable market with substantial disposable income. It is unlikely, however, that this is more than 10% of the population – still a hefty 23 million, a market probably nearing the size of Australia. There is no doubt that there are increasing opportunities for businesses to make profits.

However, the wildly optimistic figures of the World Bank flow from its essentially racist outlook in defining poverty. It doesn’t mean first world middle income levels, just as the US$2 per day poverty standard that is often used is not the same measure used as the criterion for poverty in Australia or the USA. The most often quoted annual average per capita income for Indonesia is still around US$3000, compared to Australia’s $35,000 plus. Moreover, this US$3,000 figure for Indonesia is still only an average. It is very hard to earn more than 1 or 2 million rupiah a month (around AU$100-200) for a non-office worker in Jakarta, and an office worker might earn only a little above that. In the meantime, housing has become more expensive or further away from workplaces; health services are a horror for most people to access; transportation is also problematic, with many people now relying on credit (to buy cheap motorbikes) even to commute to work. Full-time steady work is available only to a minority. Incomes are lower in the regions.

The exhausting socio-economic conditions contrast markedly with the visibility of high-level corruption cases, which dominate the news every week. The latest is the scandal around Muhammad Nazaruddin, a politician from Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party, who has been accused of demanding kickbacks for his blessing for the construction of a sports stadium for the coming South-east Asian Games. He later fled to Singapore and then Colombia. The pursuit of Nazaruddin was in the media every day. He was eventually brought back to Jakarta – allegedly at an expense of US$400,000 – where he is now awaiting trial, probably.

The figures involved in his case – in the millions of dollars – are like salt in the wounds of the millions of poor. And the Nazaruddin case is just one in a non-stop flow of such cases throughout the last 10 years. One consequence is that the media report a big drop in Yudhoyono’s “popularity” – never really high to start with, which was reflected in the 21% vote his party got in the last parliamentary elections.


Up until now, the level of grievance felt in the streets – which is obvious to anybody who talks to people or who notes the popularity of the more savage political comics on TV – has not transmuted into any kind of political movement.

The political system is still dominated by the parties established immediately after the fall of Suharto, in the 1999-2001 period. These are all parties that have been well financed by various sections of the Indonesian monied elite, mostly factions of the elite with bases in specific regional locations. Splits and rivalries among the elite have added a few new party initiatives, but the early starters have been passing legislation to make it very difficult for new comers to get into the game. There are very difficult conditions to register to participate in elections and also a threshold to meet to get seats in parliament.

Grassroots movements have not yet developed on a national scale; the 33 years of dictatorship under Suharto have meant that building a nationwide network across this huge country has to start from scratch. This process has started, but only in the last few years. There is also a huge ideological vacuum as a result of the long period of suppression of ideological life. This is also starting to be filled. There are now at least four socialist groups attempting to build a national network. Even more extensive are the mushrooming radical intellectual circles, artistic initiatives, publishing houses and websites. All this is at an early stage of development but is occurring in a fertile environment.

[This article is the first in a Direct Action series about the political situation in Indonesia.]

International News & Analysis