The Indonesian elite attempted
In such a political climate the parties remained the political tools of a small self- serving elite, who saw themselves as being above the rest of Indonesian society. The 1955 elections which were to have solved some of these problems, failed to do so however, and ended up discrediting the very democratic system they were supposed to have strengthened. Yet the main cause of the failure of parliamentary democracy in Indonesia, was the political parties and the politicians. It was they who created the system, and it was they who failed to make it work.
The period of parliamentary democracy in Indonesia between 1950 and 1957 was a time of great opportunity and uncertainty. It was in this period that democracy had its best, and until recently, its only chance, to prove itself workable in Indonesia. Yet for democracy to work in the new nation of Indonesia, it had to overcome significant cultural and social difficulties that ran deep within Indonesian society. The very notions and ideas that made up the Indonesian elite’s understanding of what democracy was and how it should work, significantly weakened and undermined the whole of the democratic system as set-up by the elites.
The limited ideological basis of Indonesian democracy was to play an important role in its eventual demise. The political model that the Indonesians chose for their parliamentary system also fundamentally undermined parliamentary democracy. It led to a string of unstable coalition governments, that saw the parties forced to increasingly concentrate on holding power, and distributing patronage, than on running the country. In such a situation the political parties became little more than the instruments of self-serving elites and politicians. The fact that the politicians had appointed themselves to Parliament in 1945, and did not decide to allow elections until 1955, was indicative of them seeing themselves as the new ruling class.
When the elections were eventually held in 1955, instead of resolving some of the problems with the political system, as many hoped they would, the elections only made the situation worse. They failed to give one party an absolute majority, forcing the need to continue with unstable coalition governments, and contributed to the declining support for parliamentary democracy. Yet the real culprits in the failure of Indonesian parliamentary democracy were the political parties and politicians.
It was they who created the system, and it was they who were unable, and in many ways unwilling, to make it function properly. The failure of parliamentary democracy in 1957 was due in no short measure to the very ideological foundations on which it was built. These foundations, the ideas of exactly what democracy was to the Indonesian elite, meant that the democratic system itself was, in important respects, undermined by the very people who created it, even before it began functioning. From the start, Indonesia’s elite had a limited view of what democracy was, and what it included.
For many, it was more of an abstract idea, or symbol, of what the new Indonesian state should be, or attempt to be. It was seen as a force for nation-building and for ensuring the legitimacy of governments, and included notions of political parties, responsible Cabinets, and elections. For most, it did not include ideas such as individual rights, majority rule, minority rights, and the legitimate role of opposition parties. 1 One reason for this limited conception of democracy was due to the influence inherited from the colonial government, with its centralised political structure where all the real power was controlled by the colonial government, and from its attitude of paternalism.
2 In effect, what this meant was that the Indonesian elite chose as its model a form of democracy that included only the basic requirements for a democratic system to function. That is, a President, a Parliament, a Cabinet, and the recognition of political parties to represent the interests of the elites themselves. It was in many ways something of a mechanistic view of democracy; just enough to make it work, but not so far as to undermine the central role and power of the Parliament and the elites. Such a notion of democracy was hardly strong on the ideal of representation, where Parliament and the politicians were to represent the people.
For many of the elite, it was less a case of government of the people, and more one of government over the people. This was very much in line with the Javanese concept of power, where, as Kingsbury shows, ” . . . power is abstracted from the influence of ordinary people . . . “3 True, the people could vote in elections, but there was still a strong belief in the traditional idea that the rulers embodied the interests of all the people, so that once elected, the Parliament should be free to govern as it perceived those interests.
Feith recognised this when he writes: parliamentary institutions were not seen as fulfilling representative functions. In fact, the idea of representation was almost entirely absent from Indonesian ideas of democracy. 4 The unrepresentative nature of such a notion of democracy was made worse by the fact that many in the elite did not include the idea, or see the need for, checks and balances of power, except in the case of the powers of the President, whose constitutional powers were progressively reduced throughout the 1950s. 5 Parliament, apparently, was to be answerable to no other authority than itself for most of the time.
Clearly, for many in the Indonesian elite, democracy was more about ensuring their inclusion in the political process, rather than creating a widely representative political system. It was designed to allow for the minimum amount of participation and representation necessary for a democratic system to exist and function, while ensuring that the system was firmly under the control of the political elite. Such a system was inherently flawed as it represented the interests of only a very small minority, while the needs of the majority were at best subordinated to the interests of the political elite, and at worst ignored.
Democracy then, was supported as an ideal, but it was in its practice that democracy was limited, as a widely inclusive system did not suit the elite of the time, so that it was “accepted only tentatively by the greater part of the political public. “6 Yet the real problem with the democratic ideal was less about who would have the power, and more about the state of Indonesian society in the immediate post-colonial era. At the time of independence, Indonesian political thinking and practice was influenced by a jumble of traditional, imperial (both Dutch and Japanese), and modern Western democratic ideas.
What the Indonesian elite attempted to do was to keep many of the ideas and practices of the traditional and colonial eras, and to place them within a limited democratic structure based on a Western political model. The problem was that the traditional and colonial systems with their authoritarian, centrist, and exclusive nature, were too incompatible with the Western democratic system. The police state structure the Indonesians inherited from the Dutch and Japanese was simply unable to function within the reality of a democratic system.
7 To May, such an attempt was “a catastrophic example of attempts to plant Western political . . . roots in unsuitable ground”. 8 The failure of the democratic era lays in the attempt to combine these three diverse and contradictory systems. The failure of the parliamentary era was also a result of the political system the Indonesians chose to set-up. In choosing a democratic system the Indonesians used as their model the Dutch parliamentary system with its multiparty structure. 9 The problem with this structure was that it allowed for and encouraged a large number of parties to gain seats in Parliament.
In 1951 the first Parliament had no less than seventeen different political parties, with no party holding more than 49 of the 232 seats. 10 With no party having the ability to form a government in its own right, coalition governments had to be formed, so that Indonesia found itself being governed by inherently unstable coalition governments between 1950 and 1957. As Ricklefs points out, “this was hardly a structure to support strong governments. “11 And strong governments the coalitions most certainly were not.
Because there were so many competing interests in Parliament, the Parliament became less a place of debate and government, and more a place for the parties to compete for power and political dominance. With so many parties in Parliament the coalition governments were always vulnerable to being voted out of office by the Parliament, which meant that in practice the various Cabinets were always in the hands of, and therefore at the mercy, of the other political parties. 12 This led to there being a succession of short lived and unstable coalition Cabinets.
In fact there were no less than six Cabinets in the seven years from 1950, with the longest lived being the Wilopo Cabinet of April 1952 to June 1953; a mere fourteen months. The shortest being the Natsir Cabinet which lasted only six months (September 1950 to March 1951).
13 These governments fell not only from their inability to deal effectively with the multitude of problems left over from the colonial period, and from new problems encountered since independence, but because the other parties took deliberate steps to bring down the governments. 14 It is no exaggeration to call the parliamentary period, as Dahm does, “an unbroken series of Cabinet crises. “15 Such a situation was disastrous for Indonesia. With such short lived governments there was neither a consistency of government policy, nor time to institute any political programs.
At a time when Indonesia was beset with enormous problems, such as the economy, which was in a state of hopeless stagnation and inertia, when Indonesia most needed stable and strong leadership, the parties were too interested in fighting amongst themselves in Parliament rather than dealing with the problems of the country. 16 In fact, at times, the nation was without any effective government or Cabinet whatsoever.
In the period immediately following the downfall of a Cabinet there was the inevitable bargaining and squabbling between the parties as they tried to build a new coalition in order to form a Cabinet. Such bargaining could, and did, go on for weeks at a time, while the problems of the nation were ignored. This was the case in 1953 after the fall of the PNI- Masyumi coalition (Wilopo Cabinet), where it took more than six weeks of negotiations, and five attempts to form a new coalition, before the parties could agree on a new Cabinet. 17 In such a situation the various governments found themselves spending most of their time trying to stay in power.