20 years after downfall of Suharto, Indonesia's 'reformasi' stuck in reverse

File photo showing buildings in the central business district of Jakarta, Indonesia.
File photo showing buildings in the central business district of Jakarta, Indonesia.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETORK) - Twenty years after the ouster of then president Suharto, which marked the end of his New Order regime, Indonesia's democracy appears stuck in a holding pattern.

The authoritarian New Order eventually gave way to direct presidential and legislative elections as well as regional elections, which in theory should result in more accountable and less corrupt governance.

However, despite an increase in the score on Transparency International's (TI) Corruption Perceptions Index from 20 in 1998 to 37 in 2017, corruption remains an endemic problem and the country now ranks below Timor Leste, which won independence from Indonesia in 1999.

And despite its success in regularly holding free and fair elections, the country's democracy continues to be dogged by vote-buying, political dynasties and cronyism.

Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) political analyst Siti Zuhro said Indonesia had yet to make progress in moving away from an electoral democracy to a more substantive one.

"Democratic values include egalitarianism, tolerance and direct elections. There have been some positive steps toward those goals, but there's still a long way to go," she told The Jakarta Post on Sunday.

Siti said although direct elections had improved the public's political participation, much of it was not genuine but rather motivated by vote-buying and other corrupt practices.

She also added that political parties had also failed to contribute to the efforts in improving the quality of democracy, opting for short-term access to power instead of any long-term goal.

"Political parties continue to be ensnared by corruption, using state resources to further their own interests," she said. "This is a very serious problem."

Transparency International Indonesia (TII) found in its research that the persistence of corruption was due to "the illicit relationship between politicians and businesspeople as well as rampant corruption in law enforcement institutions".

Data from the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) shows that the number of corruption cases probed by the antigraft body increased each year, with 118 cases investigated in 2017.

As a comparison, in 2008, the KPK only handled 47 cases.

"If we continue to fail to solve this graft problem, we should not only be worried about impunity but also the normalisation of corruption, where illicit practices are transformed into legal political decisions," TII secretary-general Dadang Trisasongko said.

As the country grapples with the myriad of problems, many in society have looked to the past when an authoritarian regime provided a semblance of stability.

Suharto himself remains somewhat a beloved figure among many Indonesians, with a recent Indo Barometer poll showing that 32.9 per cent of respondents believed that he was Indonesia's most successful president.

On the streets, T-shirts and other paraphernalia bearing a portrait of the former president with the slogan "Piye kabare, isih penak jamanku, tho?" (miss me yet?) are widely available for sale.

Meanwhile, some figures from the New Order regime continue to play significant roles in today's politics.

New Order stalwarts have even joined the government of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who at first appeared unencumbered by ties to the old regime.

Former Indonesian Military (TNI) commander under Suharto, Wiranto, serves as coordinating political, legal and security affairs minister, while fellow former military man and Suharto Cabinet member Hendropriyono is part of Jokowi's inner circle.

Meanwhile, the country's political opposition is led by Suharto's former son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto, who rose to the military's top position at the tail end of the New Order. Suharto's son and convicted murderer Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra has also made a political comeback by setting up the Berkarya Party, which will participate in next year's legislative elections.

Ms Siti of LIPI said the 20th anniversary of reformasi should be seen as a moment to take stock on what the country had achieved so far and spark a serious national discussion on how to improve its democracy, something that could be a hard sell to today's youth, who have shown a tendency to be politically indifferent.

Jakarta resident Mauladi Arief, 29, witnessed the rioting that preceded Soeharto's resignation. Instead of getting fired up by the events, he became apathetic and had yet to vote in any election.

"I could care less about politics," he said.