By: Seth Mydans / New York Times

A Resilient Indonesia Moves Beyond Suharto

JAKARTA — As Indonesia’s former strongman, Suharto, lay on his sickbed this week, the country that rejected him 10 years ago was in the early stages of a democratic election campaign.

Though the nation’s leaders spoke with respect of the man who had been their master and mentor for three decades, they were by their actions repudiating him, moving forward with a new Indonesia that contrasts in almost every way with one he bequeathed to them.

From one of the most centralized and controlled countries in the region, it has transformed itself into one of the most decentralized, free, open and self-regulating. From a brutal and corrupt regime under the heel of the military, it has become the standard bearer of democracy in Southeast Asia. It stands out for its political liberalism at a time when coups and coup attempts have discredited the region’s two exemplars of democracy, Thailand and the Philippines.

“Indonesia represents a good-news story in the region and in the world,” said Ralph Boyce, a former United States ambassador to Indonesia during the post-Suharto period. It did not disintegrate as a nation or fragment into a tumult of mini-wars, as many people feared when the dictator suddenly released his grip. It was not engulfed in Islamic radicalism, although that struggle is still playing itself out. It did not fall back into the grip of the military or collapse in economic ruin.

“They’re well on their way to establishing a more democratic and modern Indonesia,” Mr. Boyce said, “which is quite a challenge when you are dealing with one of the world’s largest and most disparate societies.”

A vast archipelago with a population of 240 million, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most-populous nation, whose people are 90 percent Muslim. As the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, it is demonstrating that Islam can be compatible with democracy.

Since Mr. Suharto was ousted as president in May 1998, Indonesia has had four presidents, all of whom have worked, unlike him, within the democratic system. The next election is a year away but already three of them the four have declared that they want the job again.

In the past decade, Indonesia has held three national elections and more than 300 elections for provincial and district officials in votes that have been judged to be relatively clean and in which the results have mostly been accepted by the losers.

In the marketplace of elections, political Islam has failed to win support, and Indonesians have mostly rejected the radicalism and violence of Islamist groups. In general, the country has become more devoutly religious but has not embraced extremism.

“I think the more hard-line Islamists discredited themselves in the early post-Suharto period” when they attempted to bully the nation into Islamic conservatism, said Greg Fealy, a specialist on Indonesia at the Australian National University. “They added to the wariness that the general public had toward strong Islamism.” After three decades in power during which he bent Indonesia to his will, Mr. Suharto disappeared almost completely from public life, puttering quietly in his modest home in central Jakarta as his health grew steadily worse.

“What we learned,” said Mr. Boyce, “is that at least in Indonesia, when you lose absolute power, you lose it absolutely.” In today’s Indonesia, Mr. Suharto is not even a reference point against which policies and reforms are measured. His legacy is a mixture of economic growth, a culture of corruption and a stunted political system.

A nation that was written off as an economic failure when he took power in 1965 became one of Asia’s tigers. Roads, schools, clinics and electricity raised living standards, and economic liberalism tied the economy to the outside world. When the economy collapsed during the Asian financial crisis of 1997, Mr. Suharto lost the basis of his legitimacy, and growing discontent burst into the open. In the decade since then, Indonesia has climbed back toward prosperity. A growth rate that fell to a negative 13 percent has risen to more than 6 percent.

But although the nation embraced democracy with starved enthusiasm, it found that Mr. Suharto had eviscerated its institutions, weakened its political parties and blocked the rise of potential leaders, setting back its political development.

There are no fresh faces in the presidential field for 2009. Political analysts say they are waiting until the next vote, in 2014, to see a new generation emerge.

One of the most profound changes has been the decentralization that dispersed power and political accountability from the all-powerful executive in Jakarta to local governments around the country.

The country’s bank deposits fell from 70 percent in the capital, Jakarta, to 35 percent, said Craig Charney, a political scientist and pollster based in New York — “a redistribution of wealth rare in countries outside of revolution or war.”

This has increased the political accountability of local leaders, potentially improving the delivery of government services, and it has increased stability by defusing separatist demands.

But it has also run the risk of creating what people here call hundreds of corrupt and autocratic mini-Suhartos. And it has weakened the hand of the central government in putting its policies into effect.

This accomplishment is Indonesia’s main task today, said Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono, a cabinet minister under every president since the time of Suharto. “Before we claim to be the third largest democracy we have to overcome what I call the delivery deficit,” he said. “For democracy to take root here it must prove that it can improve the lives of the people.”

Forty-nine million people live on less than $2 a day, he said. Ten million are unemployed. Large numbers have no access to health care, primary education or clean water. The infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the region.

“We call it procedural democracy,” said Bonar Tigor, who heads a pro-democracy group called Solidarity Without Borders. “We have freedom of political expression. We have good freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. We no longer have political prisoners.” But he said, “Democracy has been kidnapped by the elites who have gotten all the benefits. The hard daily life of the people on the bottom is still the same.”

For many of these people, the controls of the Suharto regime offered a marginally better life. Commodities like gasoline, rice, sugar and cooking oil were subsidized by the government. Now the poor are at the mercy of the market.

Problems like these are challenges for the country’s democratic government, the hard work of everyday governance. Indonesia’s success now depends on small and incremental changes rather than on the heart-stopping historical turning points of a decade ago.

“The biggest news here is that there is no crisis,” said Douglas Ramage, the country representative for the Asia Foundation.

“What strikes me is the sheer normality of the country. Indonesia is now a normal nation.”

Published: January 12, 2008

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