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Indonesia’s democratic journey: From Sukarno to Subianto

WorldIndonesia’s democratic journey: From Sukarno to Subianto

Prabowo Subianto’s ascent to prominence reflects the intricate interplay between family legacies, military affiliations, and political ambitions within the Indonesian context.

Prabowo Subianto, a former military general, has emerged as a consequential figure in Indonesia’s political landscape in the just-concluded general elections. Hailing from a lineage deeply entrenched in the country’s political and economic spheres, Prabowo’s esteemed economist father served in various capacities within the Sukarno and Suharto administrations. Leveraging his family connections and military background, Prabowo ascended to prominence, notably running as the vice-presidential candidate alongside Megawati Sukarnoputri in the 2008 elections.

Prabowo’s bid for Indonesia’s highest office has been notable for its persistence despite his dark past, facing defeat in multiple presidential elections, including special contests against incumbent President Joko Widodo (Jokowi), in 2014 and 2019. Even after his defeat in 2019, he forged strong ties with Jokowi and bagged a ministerial birth as Defence Minister in the last government with Jokowi. His political manoeuvring continued as he secured Jokowi’s direct blessing for his candidacy by selecting Jokowi’s son, Gibran, as his running mate for vice president. This alignment with Jokowi’s camp has likely played a significant role in garnering overwhelming votes and maintaining political relevance in Indonesia.
Prabowo’s ascent to prominence reflects the intricate interplay between family legacies, military affiliations, and political ambitions within the Indonesian context. His repeated forays into presidential politics underscore the complex dynamics shaping Indonesia’s democratic landscape, wherein historical legacies and personal networks continue to exert considerable influence. Prabowo embodies the intersection of power and privilege within Indonesia’s evolving socio-political milieu as a scion of both political and military lineage.

Sukarno, Indonesia’s inaugural President, often wore military attire throughout his presidency despite not having undergone formal military training. His decision was shaped by multiple factors. The journey to Indonesian nationhood was intricate, marked by the sprawling archipelago stretching roughly 5,100 kilometres from Sabang, the westernmost province of Sumatra, to Papua in the east. These vast maritime distances posed a formidable challenge to uniting the nation against colonial forces. To navigate the complexities of Indonesian politics, Sukarno strategically aligned himself with the military to secure their support, recognising their significant influence. This tactic effectively bolstered his authority and consolidated power during the initial days of his presidency. However, as time passed, he started struggling to drive the country’s staggering economy effectively as the country badly needed to reform its plantation and mineral-based economy, a legacy left by the Dutch. The frustration grew among the different supporting parties to his government. However, his continued efforts to expand his domestic and regional influence became evident through his introduction of the NASAKOM (Nationalism, Religion, and Communism) policy, aimed at unifying Indonesia’s three major political communities: the military, Islamic parties, and the communists. However, this policy failed to quell divisions, and frustration among the army and Islamic parties intensified, mainly due to Sukarno’s growing collaboration with and visits to China.

Throughout his presidency, Sukarno pursued aggressive foreign policies under anti-imperialism, deepening relations with China while personally championing the Non-Aligned Movement in the early 1960s. These actions strained relations with the West but fostered closer ties with China and the USSR, ultimately culminating in a major coup against Sukarno’s government in October 1965, ending his longstanding leadership in the country since its independence in 1945. Allegations suggest that the PKI orchestrated an attempted coup in 1965, which provided a pretext for a violent anti-communist purge, ultimately leading to Sukarno’s downfall and the establishment of a military-backed regime under General Suharto.
During Suharto’s 32 years of authoritarian rule, a policy “Dwi Fungsi” concept was formulated that assigned the military a dual role: external defence and internal security, effectively consolidating his control over the entire archipelago. This consolidation of power led to widespread human rights violations, with dissenting voices being silenced through disappearances or imprisonment.

Economically, Suharto pursued policies that opened Indonesia to advice and investment from Western countries, particularly the United States. He initiated economic restructuring efforts with assistance and guidance that contributed to Indonesia’s economic growth. Additionally, he negotiated debt forgiveness deals with the USA and Japan, alleviating some of the financial burdens on the country.
As a result of these economic policies and restructuring efforts, Indonesia experienced rapid economic growth throughout the 1990s, earning it a place among the “Tiger Economies” of Asia. This period of economic acceleration brought about significant changes in Indonesia’s economic landscape, although it was also marked by substantial income inequality and corruption, with much of the wealth being concentrated in the hands of Suharto’s inner circle and cronies.

The 1997 Asian financial crisis severely impacted Indonesia, leading to widespread discontent and ultimately culminating in the fall of President Suharto. As one of the crisis’ worst victims, Indonesia faced economic contraction, mass unemployment, and social unrest, prompting protests against Suharto’s government. Amid mounting pressure, Suharto resigned in 1998, marking the end of his long authoritarian rule and initiating a period of political reform and democratisation in Indonesia.
B.J. Habibie (1998-99), the third President, oversaw Indonesia’s transition to democracy in the wake of Suharto’s resignation. He spearheaded efforts to implement political and economic reforms, including media liberalisation, expanding political freedoms, decentralising governance, and introducing democratic elections. Notably, he controversially facilitated East Timor’s vote for independence. However, Indonesia faced considerable economic challenges during his tenure, exacerbated by the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Abdurrahman Wahid, also known as Gus Dur, served as Indonesia’s President from 1999 to 2001. He was known for his commitment to pluralism and tolerance, advocating for the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. Wahid’s presidency saw efforts to address human rights abuses and decentralise power to local governments. However, his tenure was marred by political instability, economic challenges, and accusations of corruption. Despite his efforts to promote inclusivity, Wahid faced criticism for handling religious and communal tensions, particularly in regions like Aceh and West Papua, leading to his impeachment.
Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno, became Indonesia’s first female President in 2001 following the impeachment of Abdurrahman Wahid. Her tenure was characterised by efforts to stabilise the country politically and economically. However, her presidency was criticised for its lack of decisive leadership and failure to comprehensively address corruption and economic stagnation.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, often called SBY, served as Indonesia’s President from 2004 to 2014. His presidency was marked by a focus on economic development, infrastructure improvement, and counterterrorism efforts. Yudhoyono implemented various reforms to attract foreign investment and stimulate economic growth. However, his tenure was also criticised for corruption scandals and failure to effectively address issues such as poverty and inequality.
Jokowi assumed the presidency of Indonesia in 2014 and was re-elected for a second term in 2019. Focusing more on tackling corruption, infrastructure, connectivity across the archipelago, social welfare, poverty reduction, and intensified move to forestation across the archipelago to safeguard biodiversity. Consequently, Indonesia experienced sustained economic growth, averaging five per cent annually.

However, Jokowi’s presidency has faced criticism over issues such as human rights abuses, restrictions on freedom of expression, and his handling of religious and ethnic tensions, including the controversial case of Ahok, the former Jakarta governor who was prosecuted for blasphemy. Despite these challenges, Jokowi remains a popular figure in Indonesian politics, known for his common touch and hands-on approach to governance.
For further infrastructural growth, he has made seven visits to China for investments. Unlike Suharto’s West-oriented foreign policy, several Indonesian think-tanks would call it Indonesians following the balanced approach, albeit ignoring Chinese goods flooding the market and hampering the SMES and smaller businesses.
Prabowo’s speech during the election campaign emphasised the potential expansion of Indonesia’s partnership with China, akin to Jokowi’s legacy, thereby prompting scrutiny of the nation’s current foreign policy approach, prioritising balance.

Gautam Kumar Jha is Assistant Professor, Centre for Chinese & Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Email:

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