Indonesia Nurtures Its 'Sprouting' Democracy

In much of Asia, politics is patronage: "big men" harvesting the support of the "little people" by dispensing favors, providing protection, and stifling opposition.

Probably no one better represented this style of rule than former President Suharto, who resigned amid national upheaval in May after 32 years of authoritarian, collusive, and, it must also be said, effective leadership.

Now Indonesians want something new and improved. But constructing a working democracy is proving slow, chaotic - and wonderful, all at the same time.

After decades of repressed dissent, protesters raise their voices over something nearly every day. But writing laws and holding elections takes time, especially in a country of more than 200 million spread over thousands of islands. Elections for a revamped National Assembly are set for May, but the next president won't take power until Jan. 1, 2000.

Meanwhile, the economy has already shrunk by 14 percent this year, plunging millions who had achieved relative prosperity back into poverty. Nearly every indicator of adversity is on the rise as Indonesia experiences the worst of Asia's economic crisis.

Then there is the matter of deciding how much to change and how fast. President B.J. Habibie "is truly committed to developing a democratic Indonesia that puts human rights as its top priority," says Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a political scientist and presidential adviser on foreign affairs.

Transition president

But Mr. Habibie's ties to the old regime hamper his credibility. His administration is not aggressively investigating whether corruption enriched Suharto and his family and friends, frustrating Indonesians who want a full accounting of alleged misdeeds and the return of any ill-gotten wealth.

It seems that most people feel that Habibie is at least a capable manager of the transition. But some groups want a new president now, given the gravity of the economic situation. A third set of activists say that his proposals for democratizing the country are insufficient and that a constitutional revision is required.

Indonesia is a diverse nation, more unified by colonial history than anything else, and these activists are pushing for a federal government that would give more power and autonomy to some of the country's culturally distinct regions. These include the piously Muslim region of Aceh, and the resource-rich Irian Jaya. Habibie is considering an autonomy plan for East Timor, a province that Indonesia seized from Portugal in 1975. But the idea of federalism is troubling to those who remember the divide-and-rule strategies of Dutch colonizers and who worry about a future in which Indonesia begins to resemble fractured Yugoslavia.

The military is the most concerned, since it sees itself as the guardian of integrity and stability. "Political parties are sprouting like mushrooms in the rain, but they are not deeply rooted in the society," says a senior officer who works in the Defense Ministry. "What people most need is food, not political parties."

The reluctance of the military to allow wholesale reforms puts Habibie in a conundrum. "It's not beyond [the military] to destabilize the situation if they feel cornered," says Ms. Anwar, noting that Habibie relies on the military to keep control of the protests and occasional riots.

Real participation

Ong Hok Ham, a historian at the University of Indonesia, remains encouraged. "For the first time, there is a middle-class politics in Indonesia," he says, arguing that people are engaged in debate and not simply trading support for favors.

Professor Ong says human rights are also drawing wider support. Indonesia's political transitions thus far have been marred by violence. The Dutch had to be forced out; Suharto took power in 1965 and 1966 amid an orgy of anticommunist killing; and Suharto's departure this May was preceded by riots that killed 1,200 people.

"In 1945, if you killed or raped Dutch people, you were a hero," Ong says. "Same thing in 1965. This is the first time the violence has been condemned."

Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, a former Cabinet minister, says he's heard a lot of sad stories from the economic collapse. But he says he tells people to not trade their freedom for security. "The absence of individual responsibility ... leads to anarchy when people realize the elite have nothing to offer," he says. Today's "breathing space for freedom" is allowing Indonesia to build a system less reliant on patronage.

But Mr. Sarwono is by nature a bit sardonic, and he notes that previous opportunities have passed by unfulfilled. "We have this old habit of relying again and again on strong people," he says.

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