International Papers

Indonesia’s New Improved Democracy

Indonesia took “its biggest step for almost 30 years … on its often bumpy road towards full democracy,” declared the Observer Sunday, after the nation’s highest legislative body approved direct presidential elections and “kicked the once virtually omnipotent military out of the national assemblies.” The legislature also rejected attempts to introduce sharia—Islamic law—into the constitution. 

Presuming parliament passes the required legislation in time, Indonesians will get their first chance to vote in presidential elections in 2004. As the Financial Times observed, “Until now Indonesia’s legislature, the People’s Consultative Assembly, has chosen the president—a system criticised as opaque and undemocratic.” Still, the Australian warned that “tough negotiations” will be needed before new electoral processes are defined. It reported that “activists and small parties” are concerned that established parties will attempt to maintain their dominance by setting difficult conditions for candidates. It continued, “But a clear benefit of the changed electoral system will be a reduction in political uncertainty. Under the new system, a constitutional court will be created and stricter conditions established for the impeachment of a president—avoiding the bruising saga that led to the ousting of Abdurrahman Wahid last year.”

The legislature’s decision to abolish all reserved seats means that the 38 seats currently assigned to the military and police and the 65 set aside for “various interest groups” (none of the papers consulted gave more information on the identity of these groups) will be vacated in 2004. According to Singapore’s Straits Times: “The military has had seats in Parliament since the mid-1960’s because of its dual role as a defence force and socio-political organisation. … But having come under fire since Mr Suharto left the political scene, the military leadership said they no longer wanted to be involved in active politics.”

The Sydney Morning Herald warned: “The exit of the once omnipotent armed forces from the nation’s formal political structures by 2004 does not … mean that there is broad support for democratic reforms within the military, nor a desire to regroup in a politically neutral role. Rather, it points to a recalculation of the manner in which the armed forces might wield power within the fledgling democracy of the post-Soeharto era.” The editorial said officers “unaccustomed to the burden of accountability” will almost certainly find ways to pull political strings even after their departure from the supreme legislature.