A Indonesian citizen dips their finger in ink to indicate they have voted in an election. (Credit: Josh Estey/AusAID)
It has been 20 years since the beginning of the reformation era in Indonesia, known as ‘reformasi’. A lot has changed since the fall of the New Order regime in May 1998; democracy is established, presidents are elected directly by the people, freedom of speech is protected. What has Indonesia learned in the last two decades? Is democracy working and will it survive?
Indonesia is very different today from what it was 20 years ago. But have we achieved the true aspirations of reformasi?
On 27 June Indonesia will hold direct elections for local government. Next year we will hold another round of direct elections for members of parliament, and for a president and vice-president. Those two things were not possible when the New Order was in power.
Excitement is felt in the 171 regions that will hold local elections at the end of next month. Candidates are expected to present their visions and programs for if they become a representative of the people.
Political parties are already taking strategic steps to choose candidates for the presidential election – something that would not happen without democracy.
This nation should be proud. Since reformasi we have been loyal to democracy. Every five years, the people celebrate their power over the country.
Reformasi has also changed the face of our law enforcement agencies. For example, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) was born from reformasi.
The KPK was established to eliminate the corruption eating away at country; the corruption that lead to the fall of the New Order regime in 1998. Government officials using government funds for their own benefit are now hunted down and arrested, all in the name of transparency; one of the goals of reformasi.
But after almost 20 years of reform, democracy, which we have fought so hard for, has been manipulated to enable corruption.
Hundreds of government officials have been arrested by the KPK for corruption, many of whom use funds for election campaigning, arguing that our democracy is expensive and requires a lot of money.
Creating a democracy of integrity
Indonesia’s democracy index dropped from 72.82 in 2015 to 70.09 in 2016, according to Statistics Indonesia (BPS). This index relates to the condition of civil freedoms, political rights and democratic agencies (e.g. political parties, regional governments).
Indonesia’s democracy relies heavily on political parties to recruit new members to run for office. However, when oligarchy has become standard practice it is difficult to find leaders with integrity who truly want to work for the people.
The Indonesian Democracy Index (Credit: Badan Pusat Statistik)
Another concern is the excessive negative use of democracy. We cannot deny many campaigns have used primordial issues to create horizontal conflicts. The Jakarta gubernatorial elections is an example of this. The sectarian conflicts that began during the campaign period are still not fully resolved.
President Jokowi reminded people not to be divided by elections: “In democracy, your choices can be different. But do not forget that we are all one nation.”
Chairman of the House of Representatives Bambang Soesatyo was among the readers of poetry at the Stage of Poetry and Music for the 20th anniversary of reformasi. He read a poem by W.S. Rendra, ‘Sajak Bulan Mei 1998 di Indonesia’, or ‘Verses of May 1998 in Indonesia’.
He said: “Poetry has tremendous magical power, especially reading the great works of W.S. Rendra. It makes my soul tremble, taking us back to 20 years ago in May 1998. Apart from the many social effects it has caused, May 1998 has brought major changes to the politics of our nation.”
He invited the people to once again ‘besiege’ the House of Representatives. Not physically, like 20 years ago, but to besiege it this time with ideas and innovation.
“We at the House of Representatives are representatives of the people of Indonesia. Do not waste the reform agenda that we aspired to together. We will not allow the House to be an iron wall, which the people cannot penetrate. The door of the House of Representatives is always wide open for the people’s ideas and innovations,” he said.
Communication Studies Program of FISIP at Universitas Muhammadiyah in Makassar held a session of the Makassar International Writers Festival (MIWF) 2018, titled ‘20 Years of Reformation: Challenges After 20 Years of Indonesian Political Reformation By In/Outside Perspectives’. Around 120 people took part.
In attendance were renowned writers Dewi Ria Utari, Mahfud Ikhwan, Jan Cornall and Melani Budianta with Olin Monteiro, a progressive feminist, as moderator. These authors spoke of reformasi from their perspectives and experiences, and of how it had influenced their work.
Dewi Ria Utari, a journalist turned novelist, has written of her struggle facing social realities in the reformation era, which is still laden with sadness. This inspired her novel ‘Rumah Hujan’, or ‘House of Rain’.
Mahfud Ikhwan is a short-story writer from Lamongan popular for his book ‘Kambing dan Hujan’ or ‘Goats and Rain’. He presented work of his that documented the crisis that lead to reform.
Jan Cornall, Australian singer and comedian, spoke of reformasi as the start of contact and openness between Australia and Indonesia in the art world.
Universitas Indonesia professor of philosophy Melani Budianta explored freedom and increasing ethnic, racial and religious segregation of today. She remains optimistic however about the future of reformasi, especially with the rising numbers of female writers.