ON Sunday, Malaysia’s newly freed former opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim visited Jakarta upon the invitation of former Indonesian president BJ Habibie – the man who succeeded its dictator of 32 years Suharto and ushered in a new era of democratic rule known as Reformasi.
“The year 1998 is a sacred year for Malaysia and Indonesia. May 21, 1998, is commemorated by the Indonesian people as the time when the old regime was toppled and the start of the transition of power, as well as the reinforcement of democratic institutions began during the administration of president BJ Habibie,” Anwar said as quoted by Malaysia’s news agency Bernama.
“September 2, 1998, is meanwhile, remembered by Malaysians as the beginning of the fall of the Barisan Nasional regime which finally concluded two decades later on May 9, 2018.”
Anwar has declared a “new dawn” for Malaysia and it is hoped the country will now successfully undergo the difficult process of Reformasi that their Indonesian cousins began exactly 20 years ago.
After student protests that had lasted three months and growing international pressure to resign, Indonesia’s dictator of 32 years declared his resignation on public television on May 21, 1998.
“I’ll say thank you very much for your support and I am sorry for my mistakes, and I hope the Indonesian country will live forever,” he was then quoted by the New York Times as saying.
As one of the most corrupt leaders on the planet, initially swept to power after an abortive coup against left-leaning founding father Sukarno and subsequent violence which saw at least half a million alleged communists slaughtered, Suharto claimed his decision was “based on my understanding that reforms must be carried out peacefully and constitutionally for the sake of the unity.”
Netizens across the archipelago have spent the past week reflecting on the period with the hashtag #20TahunReformasi (20 years of democratic reform) – a testament to the society’s enduring democratic spirit of debate, fervent nationalism and love of country, and of course, an addiction to social media.
The period since 1998 has seen Indonesia evolve from a highly centralised, authoritarian state under the New Order regime to the third most populous democracy globally and one of the most decentralised political systems in the world.
Whilst most of its neighbours in Southeast Asia have become increasingly autocratic in recent years, Indonesia boasts a vibrant civil society, relatively unbridled and diverse media landscape, and continues to run successful elections for various levels of government.
BJ Habibie enacted Law 22 and Law 25 in 1999, which entailed a radical devolution of governmental and fiscal responsibility from the central government to locally elected representatives at the district and city level. Provincial governments were also granted additional, significant powers.
Having been the centre of political and budgetary power in Indonesia for so long, Jakarta was only left with foreign policy, justice, defence and religious affairs.
The election of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) in 2004 was the first major achievement for Indonesian democracy, in what was widely declared peaceful campaign and fair election by local and international observers.
All political parties accepted the result, a poll conducted in September that year found that 97 percent of Indonesians believed the conduct of the election to have been “fair and honest”. Indications of intimidation and vote-buying were minimal.
Foreign observers have noted steady improvements in Indonesia’s electoral processes since 1998, despite an increase in vote-buying between the 2009 and 2014 presidential elections.
In December 2015, Indonesia successfully held its first simultaneous local elections across some 269 regions, and elections at the local and national levels continue to be declared free and fair by international observers, followed by similar polls last February.
Jakarta’s gubernatorial elections in 2017 showed cracks in Indonesia’s democratic credentials – with the previously popular incumbent governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama being ousted by an aggressive campaign by hardline Islamic groups which emphasised his identity as an ethnically Chinese Christian.
A video which surfaced in September 2016 allegedly showed Ahok insulting the Quran, for which he is now serving a two-year prison sentence.
The country’s youthful democracy will again be tested with provincial elections in the coming months and a general election in 2019.
For the first time in Indonesia’s history, parliamentary and presidential polls will be held simultaneously. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo remains hugely popular with the electorate and commands support of two thirds of parliament, but during the course of one year in Indonesian politics, anything can happen.