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  • How Indonesia Won a Constitution
  • Marcus Mietzner (bio)
Constitutional Change and Democracy in Indonesia. By Donald L. Horowitz. Cambridge University Press, 2013. 326 pp.

Scholars of democratization generally agree that constitutions play a key role in determining the outcome of democratic transitions. Welldrafted constitutions can serve as a solid foundation for young democracies, while flawed charters often lead to unstable polities and, in some cases, democratic reversals. Experts also tend to concur that it is not only the substantive content of constitutions that matters for postauthoritarian trajectories—the process through which constitutions get produced is of equal importance. But the agreement ends there.

Observers of constitution-making processes are deeply divided over how best to write a charter: Some (like Jon Elster) believe that the task of constitution-drafting is best handed to a special independent committee whose members are not legislators. Others (John M. Carey, for example) contend that constitutions should be written by directly elected representatives. There are similar disagreements over the most suitable sequence of debating and passing a constitution: While some favor a speedy drafting process followed by a referendum and elections, others recommend the reverse—elections first, after which the newly instituted government and legislature can take their time reaching a consensus on controversial constitutional issues.

The critical importance of an inclusive and appropriately sequenced constitution-making process typically becomes evident when it fails. Most recently, Egypt’s democratic transition collapsed after the Muslim [End Page 171] Brotherhood–led government pushed through a pro-Islamic constitution within six months of coming to power. Egypt’s liberal-secular forces boycotted the constitutional assembly and then lobbied the military to overthrow democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. Morsi’s overthrow, and the political events that caused it, have been the subject of numerous scholarly analyses and press reports. By contrast, successful cases of constitution-drafting usually receive less attention, even though they hold invaluable lessons for other new democracies hoping to avoid an Egypt-style outcome. Donald L. Horowitz’s fine book Constitutional Change and Democracy in Indonesia makes an important contribution in this regard, offering the country that is home to the world’s largest Muslim population as a model for a well-managed process of constitution-drafting and, by implication, a successfully completed democratic transition.

Rich in empirical detail as well as comparative reflections, Horowitz’s book provides a masterful step-by-step account of how Indonesia chose a “gradual, insider-dominated, elections-first [approach to] constitution making” (p. 262), and how this particular choice helped Indonesia to consolidate its democracy. In Horowitz’s view, the process of amending Indonesia’s 1945 Constitution—which stretched from 1998 to 2002—allowed for careful fine-tuning of institutional arrangements and thus produced a sensibly crafted balance of power among Indonesia’s key political actors. Even more important, this process created a channel of communication through which they could interact and reduce their suspicions of one another. The result was a “configuration of institutions that reinforces fluidity and intergroup alliances against the danger of bifurcation” (p. 262). This rather atypical multipolar configuration combined majoritarian presidentialism with a list-PR system for legislative elections, providing mechanisms both for cross-constituency cooperation in presidential contests and for proportional group representation in parliamentary polls. While Horowitz cautions that this mix of institutional models may not work in other countries, he argues that it was the right path for post-Suharto Indonesia.

Horowitz’s book is noteworthy not only for situating the Indonesian case within the broader scholarly literature on constitutional choices, but also for its prudent stress on historical contingency. In trying to answer the question of why Indonesia succeeded where other countries failed, Horowitz highlights the importance of four “aversive memories” that influenced the drafters of the post-Suharto constitution. These memories (of mass violence, territorial separatism, deliberative deadlock, and party fragmentation) had their roots in Indonesia’s failed experiment with democracy in the 1950s. At that time, an unsuccessful attempt at drafting a new constitution, combined with extreme multipartism and regional rebellions, had given nondemocratic actors the ammunition to terminate democratic rule. With the help of the [End Page 172] military, Sukarno established in 1959 the autocratic regime known as...


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pp. 171-175
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