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  • Indonesia's Threefold Crisis
  • R. William Liddle (bio)

On 8 June 1992, President Suharto celebrated his seventy-first birthday. He has been president of the Republic of Indonesia since March 1967, and is only the second person to hold that office. Indonesia's highest constitutional body, the People's Consultative Assembly, has given him its mandate on six occasions: in March 1967, when he was chosen acting president; in March 1968, when he became full president; and every five years since then.

The four most recent Assembly sessions were preceded by nationwide balloting for the National Representation Council (Indonesia's parliament), whose 500 representatives constitute half the Assembly membership of 1,000 (the other half are appointed in a process controlled by the president). On 9 June 1992, another parliamentary election was won handily by the ruling Golongan Karya (Golkar) party; in March 1993 there will be another Assembly session to select the president and vice president for the 1993-98 term. As of mid-1992, President Suharto is widely expected to win reelection without opposition.

Behind this democratic facade of elections, parliament, and Assembly lies the authoritarian reality of a political system dominated by Suharto, a former general whose power derives from his extraordinarily adept husbanding and shrewd use of a variety of political resources. Suharto's most important resource is his control over the armed forces. He became the army's leader—and the country's savior—on 1 October 1965, after junior army officers attached to the presidential palace guard and members of the youth organization of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) assassinated six senior generals. [End Page 60]

In the wake of these killings, Suharto parlayed his key position as commander of strategic reserves, which brought him ample support from within the military as well as from civilian anticommunist groups, into a successful campaign to ban the PKI and retire President Sukamo, who had been in office since 1945. From about 1963, Sukarno had moved increasingly close to the communists; many thought that he had been complicit in (or at least privy to) the assassination plot. In March 1966, Suharto maneuvered Sukamo into ceding him full executive power, which he then used to orchestrate Sukamo's removal from and his own accession to the presidency.

As president, Suharto quickly became the "Father of Development" (a title subsequently bestowed on him by the Assembly) by adopting the neoclassical economic policies recommended by his advisors, which have led to consistently high rates of economic growth. Economic growth has in turn swelled the accounts of the state treasury and of Suharto's own private foundations, enabling him to buy the support of many key individuals and groups, and to build a bureaucracy that serves the interests of many others.

Suharto is also the beneficiary of Indonesia's strong presidency, which was the creation of the charismatic Sukamo, who dominated the nationalist movement and independence politics from the 1920s until the mid-1960s. It was Sukarno who in 1959 returned Indonesia to the executive-centered Constitution of 1945, thus ending a decade of Western-style parliamentary rule. Some of the first president's charisma still attached to the office, and Suharto, notwithstanding his role in forcing Sukamo to retire, has been careful to maintain a sense of continuity with the past.

The function of elections in this system has been not to choose, but to legitimate. Four-fifths of the members of parliament are elected (the remaining fifth consists of military appointees), but the party organizations and electoral process are closely managed by the government to ensure substantial Golkar victories (from 62 percent in 1971 to 68 percent in 1992).

Suharto's Weakening Grip

After a quarter-century, Suharto's grip on power is beginning to show signs of weakening. The first important evidence of decline came in March 1988, when his nominee for vice-president was publicly and angrily opposed by the military delegates during a tumultuous session of the Assembly. In the end, Suharto got his way, but he had been served notice that the military as a whole and the senior army generals in particular were looking ahead to a time when they, as individuals and...


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pp. 60-74
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