The Explainer: Indonesian democracy

That was the first President of Indonesia, Sukarno, proclaiming the independence of his country in 1945. After a four-year war for independence, Holland finally recognized Indonesian independence in 1949.

Few Filipinos today realize that for much of the early 20th century, the Indonesians looked to the Philippines as a model for achieving independence and nation-building. In general, the two countries have enjoyed warm relations and in the Muslim world, Indonesia has been a reliable ally of the Philippines.

Since the 1990s, the Indonesians have also entered into a stage our country joined in 1986: as newly-restored democracies. Tonight, we’ll look at the Indonesians and why some observers think that country, and no longer ours, is Southeast Asia’s shining example of a successful democracy.

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


I.  Sister republics


Let’s begin with a film clip of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno.

It makes for interesting viewing because much of the hustle and bustle you’re seeing on your screen, the posturing and crowd dynamics, echoes our own, when our past and present presidents go on any provincial visit. Take a look, it’s eerily familiar, isn’t it?

Let’s take a step back in time. This is a map of the world, dating to around 1943. It shows the world as the Americans imagined it would be, after World War.

This detail from this map shows the Philippines as the Americans thought it would be, and note the inclusion in our territory of Celebes and the Moluccas.

But of course this is neither how the Philippines or the other former colonies in Southeast Asia ended up; the portion of the Dutch East Indies that might have ended up part of our country firmly became part of today’s Republic of Indonesia, which at first began as a Federal Republic but quite early on became a unitary state like ours.

Our two countries entered the family of nations only three years apart; in 1946 when our independence was recognized by the United States, in 1949 when Indonesia’s was recognized by the Dutch.

When Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, shown here being conferred the Philippine Legion of Honor, rank of Chief Commander by President Quirino, we were already on our third nationally-elected President, and, chronologically, our fifth; Indonesia’s head of state was just newly in office.

In truth our head start in modern nationhood began much earlier than a mere three years;

So if, in the six decades since the colonial powers left, we have had ten presidents, all of them elected by the public;

Indonesia has only had six.

And of these six, most of the six decades of Indonesian independence were marked by the presidencies of only two individuals, the first two presidents, Sukarno from 1945 to 1967, and Suharto from 1967 to 1998.

In fact it wasn’t until Indonesia’s fourth president that they had one elected by actual ballot, and not acclamation, by their legislature; President Wahid also turned out to be the first of their presidents to be impeached and removed from office. And it was only with the present president, Yudhiyono, that Indonesians actually directly elected their chief executive, and this was in 2004, or 69 years after Filipinos first directly elected their own chief executive.

During Sukarno’s time, Filipino presidents had an uneasy relationship with him, because he promoted the idea of Non-Aligned nations while the Philippines counted itself firmly in the camp of the United States and the West.

However, in the 1960s, as Filipino presidents began to assert a more independent foreign policy, Sukarno and presidents from Macapagal onwards found themselves allied in opposition to Britain’s including Sabah, or North Borneo, in the territory of Malaysia.

Suharto’s successor, too, became a kind of interesting model for presidents like Marcos. If Suharto had what he called his New Order;

Then the example of Indonesia’s military government was one of the many examples of strongman rule studied in preparation for martial law;

And so if Suharto had his New Order, then Marcos would have his New Society. An interesting artistic note is that these two very famous images from the dictatorship were painted by an Indonesian, Baseki Abdullah.

To this day, the confluence of interests that led to the Philippines and Indonesia building on prewar ties of mutual regard between our respective independence movements, into a durable alliance in opposition to Malaysia, and Indonesia’s speaking up for the Philippines in the Muslim world;

There is also the uncomfortable realization that these initials –SBY- are, perhaps, more important to the West, than, say, GMA.

SBY stands for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the present President of Indonesia. As early as 2007, I heard, in a conference in Washington DC, Americans referring to him as “Asia’s new Magsaysay.” For a Filipino, a tough comparison to accept.

SBY is now gearing up to run for re-election, something that sets apart their presidents from ours. But there are other differences, too, between their presidential system and ours. I’ll tackle some of those differences, when we return.


II. The Indonesian way forward


That was a clip from a documentary on the fall of Suharto, with People Power, Indonesian style.

Recently, in the wake of events in Thailand, an interesting commentary was published in the New York Times on April 18, by a Thai, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, with a paragraph I’d like to share with you. Referring to the Thais, the writer said,

“It should not emulate Nepal, a monarchy turned republic, because the unifying symbol of our king is integral to Thai identity. It shouldn’t follow the Philippines, where periodic people’s power movements have brought neither political stability nor economic vibrancy. The last thing we need is a military dictatorship like Myanmar’s. For all the country’s troubles, Indonesia’s transition to democracy after decades of autocratic rule may offer the best model.”


This is an interesting opinion because it challenges a view we’ve lhad of ourselves, as the region’s model for democracy. The Thai commenter seems to think that even though the Indonesians and us both had People Power, it hasn’t become a permament feature of the Indonesian political landscape, unlike us. Let me suggest to you that there is a reason for this, and it’s by virtue of constitutional design.

When Indonesia decided to dismantle the dictatorship of Suharto, they faced the problem of instituting democracy in a far-flung nation, one used to obedience, but which now wanted democracy. How to do it, without the entire country falling apart?

We can look to Europe for an illustration of a similar problem. Faced with rebuilding France after World War II, this man, Charles de Gaulle, famously made this exasperated remark:

How, he asked, can you govern a country with 246 different kinds of cheese? The French, he observed, are so quarrelsome that they will never accept a government unless it could clearly demonstrate a mandate from the people.

Indonesians had had no free elections for over forty years, 1955 to 1998; if Indonesians wanted democracy, they might prefer division to unity; yet for a government to function, it would have to be able get the cooperation of the public.

The Indonesian solution was a similar one to that devised by de Gaulle when he returned to power in the 1950s. The people must have the freedom to vote for whomever they want, and this means allowing as many candidates as possible to run for President. But a President, to be effective, must be armed with a strong mandate. So, the system of runoff elections was put in place.

The Indonesians do this by dividing their national elections into two, sometimes three, stages. First, elections for the legislature take place. This happened last April.

Indonesians went to the polls to vote their equivalents of our congressmen and senators.

Their lower house is called the People’s Representative Council, with 560 seats, and their version of our senate is the Regional Representatives Council, with 132 seats.

To strengthen the role of parties, the percentages of parties determines if any party gets to nominate a candidate for president. The requirement is either 25% of the national vote or 20% or 112 seats in the People’s Representative Council. If a party meets that requirement, they can then put forward a presidential candidate.

Then, three months later, Indonesians go to the polls to elect their President, in this case, it will happen on July 8, 2009.

But there’s a catch: to be elected president, you have to get at least fifty percent of the votes. Here’s how it worked the last time.

In 2004, the first time Indonesians got to directly vote for their president, five candidates ran. But none got fifty percent.

The top two, in this case, incumbent president Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Sukarno, and her main challenger, former General Yudhoyono, then had to run in a run-off election. Yudhoyono won with sixty percent, which our own experience tells us is a classic case of an electoral landslide.

Now the Indonesian electoral system isn’t perfect, and if you look at pictures of polling places, like this one on Wikipedia, they seem to be very similar to ours.

But if you look at recent commentaries by Indonesians, such as this blog, online, you’ll find that on the whole, Indonesians seem pretty pleased with how their legislative elections turned out, and aren’t expecting anything particularly messy when they elect their president in July.

Foreign observers, though, have pointed out there are problems we’d find very familiar: problems with voters’ lists, with their version of the Comelec, with spending, and even violence; but on the whole, the public seems to have accepted the elections and the way they were held. It’s interesting to explore why they seem to have hit on a way to get presidents the public will view as genuine.

An Indonesian once told me the reason they go through the added trouble and expense of a runoff election is precisely related to the Philippines.

After they restored democracy, they looked at our country as an example to study. First, they assumed, as most Filipinos do, that the presidential system is the best suited, historically and culturally, to their and our population; but also, they believed the Philippines’ lack of a majority president since 1987 has caused too many problems –which a runoff could reduce.

And this is what we’re going to discuss later on tonight. Have the Indonesians hit on a system that balances freedom with stability?


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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