From Independence to the Soeharto Era

The result was that Indonesians were poorly equipped to manage their own affairs, much less to run a sophisticated democratic form of government when they achieved independence. The institutions to support a democratic system were lacking, and the Indonesians themselves had inherited from their Dutch and Japanese rulers the traditions and legal structure of a highly authoritarian system. Moreover, the bulk of the population was poor, illiterate, and used to paternalistic rule, while those who were politically informed constituted a very thin layer of urban society. Nonetheless the newly independent nation’s rulers did better than expected, and the commitment to the concept of democracy by the elite resulted in the period 1950-57 being the freest and most open in Indonesia’s history. It was followed by two periods of authoritarianism: Sukarno’s “Guided Democracy” (1957-65) and Soeharto’s “New Order” (1966-98).

Indonesia declared its independence on August 17, 1945. The following day the revolutionary leaders promulgated what is now known as the 1945 constitution. Modeled on the Chinese Organic Law of 1931, it is short (37 articles), vague, and provides for a powerful president and a very weak legislature. It departs in important ways from Western democratic concepts. With the achievement of independence in December 1949, Indonesia’s leaders promulgated a new basic document–the 1950 constitution—that mandated a parliamentary system with a largely ceremonial president, guaranteed human rights, placed the military under civilian control, and provided checks and balances on the misuse of power. Drafted by the Indonesians themselves, this constitution survived until 1959 when Sukarno unilaterally abrogated it, reimposed the 1945 constitution, and formally proclaimed Guided Democracy.

The period from December 1949 until July 1955 was tumultuous with monumental administrative problems, outbreaks of dissent and violence in several parts of the archipelago, and the coming and going of five cabinets. With the opposition becoming increasingly vocal over the delay in holding national elections, it was decided that polling for an elected parliament would take place in September 1955 with elections for a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution that December. The ensuring election campaign further aggravated regional and intergroup frictions, and this is worth bearing in mind in case history should repeat itself.

Interest in the elections was high, and 91.5 percent of the eligible voters cast their ballots. A total of 28 parties gained seats, but only 4 really counted. Those 4 shared roughly equally in about 75 percent of the vote. (see Table 1) Masyumi (Majlis Syuro Muslimin Indonesia, Consultative Council of Muslim Indonesians) was created by the Japanese in 1943 as a vehicle to control Islam, and it included most Muslim educational and social organizations. It was banned by Sukarno in 1960. Several present-day parties try to trace their lineage to Masyumi. Nahdlatul Ulama (Awakening of Religious Teachers, NU) was established in 1926 by the grandfather of the present NU leader, and the organization continues today as the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia (estimated 30 million members). It is headed by Abdurrahman Wahid, popularly known as Gus Dur, and is the patron of the present National Awakening Party (PKB). It is a conservative rural organization with particular strength in East Java. The Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI) became the political vehicle of Sukarno. In 1973 it was fused by Soeharto into the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI, a merger of the Sukarno-era PNI with several Christian and other parties) and can now said to be the political vehicle of Sukarno’s daughter Megawati, leader of the present Indonesian Democracy Party-Struggle (PDI-P). The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), at one time the third-largest communist party in the world, was eliminated following the abortive 1965 coup.

The parliamentary elections produced no solutions and only served to draw the battle lines among various groups more sharply. The December elections for a Constituent Assembly produced similar results. The assembly convened in November 1956 and was dissolved by Sukarno three years later without having drafted a constitution. Indonesians tend to view the period 1950-57 as one of fast-changing, weak governments, divisive party politics, and administrative chaos, as power shifted among the leading parties. Some outside observers are now saying that things were not as bad as they seemed and that both Sukarno and Soeharto, for their own purposes, denigrated the period of constitutional democracy. There is undoubtedly some truth in this, but at the same time there is little doubt that the period saw a sharpening of regional and intergroup tensions and many basic economic and social problems were not addressed. Also relevant is the fact that that there were four prime ministers during 1945-49 with governments changing on the average every 10.6 months; 1950-57 was a little better with six prime ministers and an average term of 12.4 months. Although the early 1950s were a time of political openness, there is no gainsaying the fact that political instability during that time paved the way for the succeeding authoritarian governments.

In March 1957, with serious disruptions in Sumatra and elsewhere, Sukarno proclaimed martial law. This was followed on July 6, 1959, by the institution of Guided Democracy, abolition of the Constituent Assembly, and restoration of the 1945 constitution by executive decree. In March the following year the elected parliament was dissolved when it failed to pass the government’s budget. Thereafter Sukarno enacted budgets by decree as the economy descended into total chaos. Indonesia’s experiment with constitutional democracy had ended.


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