In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Indonesia: Suharto’s Tightening Grip
  • R. William Liddle (bio)

On 11 March 1996, Indonesia’s President Suharto celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of then–President Sukarno’s signing of an executive order that enabled Suharto, then a general, to complete his rise to national power. Sukarno’s action legitimized Suharto’s personal control over the armed forces, his banning of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), and a series of subsequent steps that led just one year later to his election as acting president by the People’s Consultative Assembly.

The date of 11 March 1966, then, is rightly regarded as the symbolic moment of transition from Sukarno’s regime (known officially as “Guided Democracy”) to Suharto’s “New Order.” Guided Democracy was a form of authoritarianism based on the charismatic leadership and radical revolutionary vision of Sukarno, Indonesian nationalism’s founding father, and on the precarious balance that he maintained between the army and the PKI, the two most powerful political forces of the time. It lasted only six years, from 1959 to 1965.

Like its predecessor, Suharto’s New Order is authoritarian and dominated by a leader with a strong personal vision. Suharto is not charismatic, however, and his vision is far from revolutionary; he seeks above all a prosperous economy amid a hierarchically ordered society and polity. His regime has lasted 30 years so far.

During that time, Suharto’s power has been based on his control of the armed forces, especially the army. Suharto is a lifelong soldier whose career dates back to service in the Dutch colonial forces before the Second World War. He was in command of the army’s strategic [End Page 58] reserves on 1 October 1965, when junior officers and PKI youth-organization members assassinated six senior generals. At that moment, he became the army’s de facto head, a position that he has used effectively ever since.

As president, Suharto has consistently made the economic decisions that have brought a quarter-century of growth averaging 6 percent or better a year, multiplying many times over both state revenues and Indonesia’s GNP. He knows how to exchange economic benefits for political support, both directly with individual members of the elite and indirectly with large social groups, such as rice farmers and urban consumers. In the eyes of many Indonesians, economic growth also validates Suharto’s vision of a strong state that successfully pursues development while remaining paternalistic and insulated.

Finally, Suharto has built institutions that simulate the appearance of a working modern polity. Thus Indonesia has a written constitution that dates back to the independence revolution that began in 1945; an elaborate set of corporatist, state-controlled social organizations; national elections (held every five years since 1971); and a three-party system. The perennial “ruling party”—really the political face of state power—is Golongan Karya (Functional Groups, or Golkar), which has never received less than 60 percent of the vote. The closely watched minority parties are the United Development Party (PPP) and the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). These institutions help to provide a legitimating cover for regime insiders and to bar genuine participation by outsiders.

After 30 years in power, what is the state of the New Order? In 1992, I argued in these pages that “Suharto’s grip on power is beginning to show signs of weakening,” and that the New Order was facing a growing crisis. I pointed to Suharto’s advancing age, to recent disturbances in East Timor, and to the brewing conflict between the president and the army. I speculated that “there will fairly soon be an opening that will furnish an opportunity for democratization,” and saw democratic forces as weak but growing in numbers and resources. 1

Today, however, democracy seems further away in this country of almost 200 million people (the world’s fourth most populous). The regime looks solid and highly efficient, and despite recent unrest, faces no serious inside or outside threat, at least as long as Suharto remains in power. Why the turnaround? Mostly because of Suharto’s push to reestablish his control over the military and to seek new support in society. Let us look first at the current inner...

Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 58-72
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.