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Indonesian People in a Political Rally (Photo: Lysdqzx.com)

Indonesia as a Model of Muslim Democracy

OurIndonesia – In the wake of Islamic resurgence and the growing democratic movements in North Africa and the Middle East, it is relevant to see Indonesia as a model of Muslim democracy. The country has shown a stable democratic government, civil liberties, and tremendous economic growth.

Prior to 1998, Turkey was often considered a model of Muslim democracy. Not only was it the sole majority Muslim country that rigorously applied secular principles, it also tried to maintain a democratic government. Although there were some criticisms against military dominance in Turkish politics, many people at the time still considered Turkey to be the only democratic Muslim country in the world. In the absence of a democratic government in the Muslim world, the presence of Turkish democracy, however minimal it was, was a relief.

This view began to change when Indonesia moved from an authoritarian regime to democracy in 1998. Eight years later the country was crowned by US based think tank, Freedom House, as a free country: the only large Muslim majority country to have attained such a status. Among countries in North Africa and the Middle East, Israel is the only country to be regarded as free.

Since then, many world leaders lauded the rise of democracy in Indonesia. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, called Indonesia a role model of democracy for the Muslim world. She believed that “Indonesia’s own recent history provides an example for a transition to civilian rule and building strong democratic institutions”.

Likewise, President Obama pointed out that Indonesia’s democracy can be Egypt’s model. Indeed, Obama has often praised Indonesian democracy as a good example for the world. In the wake of democratic movements spreading through large parts of the Arab world, it is necessary to explore Muslim models of democracy. There are at least four reasons why Indonesia is a good model.

First, Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world that has undergone political transition from authoritarian regime to democracy.

Second, the country has maintained political stability despite the ethnic conflicts and religious riots in the first years of its political transition.

Third, Indonesia has demonstrated stable economic performance. Over the last five years, economic growth in Indonesia has been around 6%. During the global financial crisis in 2009, together with China and India, Indonesia was the only country that could maintain economic growth above 4%.

Fourth, Indonesia is the only Muslim majority country where Islamic political parties have failed to win the general election. In North African and the Middle Eastern countries, democracy always gives Islamic political parties victory.

Indonesia is an interesting case for anyone to study the interplay between Islam and democracy. In the wake of Islamic resurgence and the growing democratic movements in North Africa and the Middle East, the question whether Muslim countries are going to be more Islamized or secularized becomes increasingly important. Let me explain first the historical background of Indonesia’s road to democracy.

The current process of democratization in Indonesia started in 1998, particularly on 21 May, when President Soeharto publicly announced his resignation from his 32 year rule of the country. The announcement was quite surprising as he was just elected for the seventh time and had committed to rule the country for another five years.

The public pressure from students seemed to be Suharto’s main reason for resignation. Student movements had occupied the parliament for three days and riots a week earlier (14-15 May) had brought the capital city to a standstill. Indonesia was on the brink of financial and political collapse. Soeharto’s resignation was the right response in a dire situation .

The Struggle for Democracy

Like in many other countries, political transition is never easy, particularly with a country that has been ruled by an authoritarian-military regime. Soeharto handed down his government to Burhanuddin Jusuf Habibie, his deputy, but he was perceived as a part of the same regime. Worsened by economic crisis, Indonesian politics in the first three years of its transition was filled by tension, conflict, and demonstrations.

People felt free to express what they think. Democracy allowed them to form organizations where they could recruit and mobilize people. Hundreds of organizations and political parties were formed. Groups with various ideological inclinations filled the public sphere bringing their own paradoxes. Indonesian democracy in its early years was chaotic and people started to speak about the disentegration of the Republic and the potential for Balkanization.

People were dissatisfied with the new government and they perceived it as a sequel to the old one. The economic crisis brought the country to its most difficult times in three decades. Inflation reached 77%, interest rates jumped to 68%, gross domestic product went down to minus 13%, and unemployment rose to 24%. From the beginning, Habibie’s power was always considered to be short term.

People wanted a fair general election where they could choose their own leaders. Various laws regarding the political transition were drafted and enacted. The general election was scheduled for June 1999. It was a parliamentary election where people voted for legislative members. According to the constitution then, the president was not directly selected by the people but by the legislative members.

The 1999 general election was not only about the selection of a new leader and the hope for a better economic future, but Indonesian democracy and the trajectory of the country was also at stake. Soon after the general election was scheduled, hundreds of political parties were formed and registered themselves to the General Election Commission (Komisi Pemilihan Umum, KPU).