Indonesia was in chaos and in danger of splitting apart.
When President Suharto stepped down on May 22, 1998, after more than three decades in power, the autocratic ruler left behind an economic crisis, an outbreak of lawlessness and a heavily centralized, deeply corrupt political system.
Hungry Indonesians were pillaging food warehouses and shrimp farms and occupying golf courses to plant crops to eat. The country’s ethnic Chinese population, which had become the target of mob attacks, were fleeing in droves. Separatist insurgencies were raging in East Timor, Papua and Aceh, and sectarians clashes broke out between Christians and Muslims on the island of Ambon.
Older Indonesians had flashbacks to the country’s only other transfer of power since independence, when its first president, Sukarno, yielded to Suharto, a major general, after an aborted Communist coup. That transition, in the mid-1960s, was accompanied by a military purge against suspected Communists that left an estimated 1 million people dead or missing. Others saw parallels to the breakup of the Soviet Union or the former Yugoslavia. The headline on an article I wrote in 1998 asked, “Will Indonesia be balkanized?”
Twenty-five years later, none of the most dire predictions — mine included — have been realized. Indonesia held together as a country (with the exception of East Timor, which voted for independence in 1999 in a U.N.-backed referendum). The insurgencies and sectarian uprising were contained. The economy eventually recovered.
Perhaps most miraculous, democracy took hold. Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most-populous nation and the largest majority-Muslim country, has emerged as arguably the most stable democracy in Southeast Asia — and a modern model for how democracy and Islam are compatible.
Indonesia’s democracy is poised to take another giant step forward next February, when the country will vote for a new leader to replace term-limited President Joko Widodo, widely known as Jokowi. He is Indonesia’s fifth president in the 25 years since Suharto. The first found no support in parliament, which appointed the president. The second was removed by parliament. The third was defeated at the ballot box. All have peacefully handed over power to their successors.
The fact that the popular Widodo quashed talk of amending the constitution to allow him to run for a third term is a testament to how deeply entrenched democratic norms have become. He might have maneuvered a way to stay in office. Instead, he opted to follow the established rule and step down when a successor is chosen by a majority of voters.
Next year’s election will also mark the first time Indonesians vote for a president, national parliament and, later the same year, governors and assemblies for all 38 provinces. Under Suharto’s self-proclaimed “New Order” regime, provincial leaders were appointed from Jakarta. Decentralization — allowing provinces to elect their own leaders, set their own fiscal policy and keep more of their revenue from natural resources — was one of the key demands fueling earlier drives for separatism.
Supporters of Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto during a campaign rally in Bali on March 26, 2019. (Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP via Getty Images)
Besides curtailing separatist sentiment, regional elections also led to the emergence of political leaders who honed reputations based on their performance running local and regional governments, as opposed to being known for their connections, military rank or pedigree.
Widodo himself is a product of the decentralized system. Born in a slum, he was a furniture-maker before being elected mayor of Surakarta and later governor of Jakarta. One of the top candidates to succeed him, Ganjar Pranowo, was elected to the national parliament after the fall of Suharto and later was elected governor of Central Java. Widodo has signaled his support for Ganjar to succeed him.
There are other reasons to celebrate Indonesia’s success story so far. The military, the dominant force in society under Suharto, has largely been removed from politics. The chances of the military staging a coup or meddling to remove a civilian government, as happened in Myanmar in 2021 and Thailand most recently in 2014, appears increasingly remote in Indonesia.
The country’s news organizations are among the freest in Southeast Asia. The Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index of 180 countries ranks Indonesia at 108. That puts the country below Malaysia and Thailand but well above Singapore (at 129), the Philippines (132), Hong Kong (140) and Cambodia (147).
The nation still has its problems. Corruption remains rife, and many believe Widodo, while not personally corrupt, has been unable or unwilling to tame the widespread graft. Political parties still more closely resemble vehicles of personal popularity and patronage than ideological groupings. There are concerns about a creeping religious intolerance and pockets of extremism.
The archipelago of 17,000 islands also has been particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, with frequent flooding, lower rice yields and other natural disasters. The threat of rising sea levels is so dire that Widodo has pushed through a costly plan to move the capital from Jakarta to a new city, Nusantara, being constructed from scratch about 620 miles away.
These issues are not insignificant. But let’s pause for a moment to celebrate what Indonesia has become in the past 25 years — a rare democratic success story in Southeast Asia.
Keith B. Richburg is the director of the University of Hong Kong Journalism and Media Studies Centre. He is a former Washington Post correspondent.