Indonesia - Political background

Two long-term presidents dominated Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, in the decades following World War II: Sukarno and Suharto. Sukarno, the main political leader of the independence movement and Indonesia's first president, forged a national identity through his pancasila or five bases:1) belief in one God; 2) internationalism and concern for humanity; 3) national unity; 4) the sovereignty of the people; and 5) social justice. These principles were intended to provide a common rallying point for the disparate religious, cultural, political, and ethnic groups that populate Indonesia.

Suharto, a general, rose to rule Indonesia when Sukarno turned radical and confrontational. In September 1965, six senior generals were assassinated in an attempted coup by the powerful Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), and the military responded swiftly and brutally. Hundreds of thousands of people (mainly PKI supporters, peasants, and ethnic Chinese) were killed during the military's crackdown. As the newly appointed "commander for the restoration of security and order," Suharto oversaw the military's retaliation. Formal titles bestowed over the next few years provided evidence of his control of the government. He was granted executive powers in 1966, was named acting president in 1967, and was elected president by the People's Consultative Assembly in 1968. By 1970, when Sukarno died, the transition from Sukarno's "Guided Democracy" to Suharto's "New Order" was already complete.

Suharto annexed territory for Indonesia, including the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, where the Indonesian invasion led to an estimated 200,000 deaths. The Suharto regime was ruthless in suppressing dissent, stifling the press, and imprisoning opponents. Despite this, opposition leaders who gained prominence in the 1990s included Amien Rais, an Islamic reformer, and Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno. At the end of the 1990s, secessionist movements in Aceh and East Timor gained support and the economy faced a major crisis in 1997. Massive student-led protests forced Suharto to resign on 21 May 1998. Waves of violence, particularly directed at urban ethnic Chinese communities (which were perceived as in charge of an unjust economy), convulsed Indonesia as Suharto was toppled. When Suharto resigned he announced that the business-oriented but eccentric vice president, B.J. Habibie, would assume the presidency. Habibie was considered a caretaker rather than a real political contender.

Indonesia's Constitution gives broad power to the president, who is both head of state and chief executive. The presidential term is five years with no limits on reelection. The president is elected by the People's Consultative Assembly (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat—MPR), which the president heads. The MPR consists of 695 members, with some elected and some chosen as regional delegates or as representatives of professional groups, political organizations, or the armed forces of Indonesia. It includes the 500 members of the House of Representatives, who are selected proportionate to the general election results. A number of decrees introduced in the late 1990s curbed the power of the president and the military, introduced the secret ballot, and provided legislative checks on the bureaucracy.

In 1999, following national elections, Abdurrahman Wahid was selected as president by the People's Consultative Assembly. Wahid, an influential Muslim intellectual, had refused to support Suharto's sixth consecutive term for the presidency and had become increasingly critical of Suharto's embrace of religion for the sake of increasing political legitimacy. In 1998, after Suharto's fall from power, Wahid organized the National Awakening Party, based on the principles of moderation, tolerance, and harmony. On taking office, Wahid accepted East Timor's referendum-approved independence and extended peace overtures to rebels in oil-rich Aceh, northern Sumatra. Ethnic violence persisted, however, and spread throughout the archipelago. Desperately needed economic reforms occurred only in fits and starts and Wahid appeared more interested in foreign than domestic policy. His relations with the People's Consultative Assembly were acrimonious. Despite his personal charm and the respect of the public, Wahid's unpredictability caused legislators to lose confidence in him. He also failed to get along with Megawati Sukarnoputri, whom he had relegated to the vice presidency.

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