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The Limits of the Indonesian Model

- March 12, 2013

The following is a guest post from Tom Pepinsky.  He is Assistant Professor of Government at Cornell University, and blogs on political economy, methods, Southeast Asia, and food at Indolaysia. It is cross-posted at Foreign Policy.


Many analysts of the Arab Spring have observed that the recent democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia echo what happened in Indonesia, another Muslim-majority country, in the late 1990s. These observers cite Indonesia’s transition as a model or template for the countries of the Arab Spring. But the similarities between the three countries are deceptive.

Beginning with Suharto’s resignation in May 1998 and ending with multiparty parliamentary elections held in June 1999, Indonesia — like Egypt and Tunisia — witnessed the dismantling of many of the institutional and political legacies of decades of authoritarian rule. As in Egypt and Tunisia, Indonesia’s authoritarian New Order had also previously clamped down on Islamist opposition groups. When the New Order collapsed, Indonesia’s Islamists were among the first to articulate a new vision for what Indonesian politics should become. Yet Indonesian Islamists have failed to capture either the mobilizational energy or the electoral following that Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood have enjoyed overwhelmingly in North Africa. Whereas the first democratic elections in Egypt and Tunisia brought Islamists to office, Indonesia has had three democratic elections since 1999, and Islamists have failed to make an electoral breakthrough in any of them.

The different trajectories of political Islam in post-authoritarian Indonesia, Egypt, and Tunisia show why there can’t be an “Indonesian model” of democratic transitions in Muslim-majority countries. To be sure, new Muslim democracies in Egypt and Tunisia face similar challenges as Indonesia did when it emerged from authoritarianism. These include histories of rigged elections and managed oppositions, delicate relations with Western allies, large and visible non-Muslim minority populations (in Egypt), weak rule of law coupled with large and inefficient state bureaucracies, activist militaries with histories of political action, and many others.

But one major difference between Indonesia and its North African counterparts exists. Whatever the excesses of the brutal and corrupt New Order regime, Suharto presided over remarkable increases in the material well-being of the Indonesian people. By contrast, Ben Ali and Mubarak oversaw developmental debacles in Tunisia and Egypt: economic stagnation, ineffective development policymaking, and state decay. In such environments, Islamists thrive because their ideas resonate with a natural constituency of disenfranchised, disempowered, and frustrated citizens who expect more from their governments.

This is not a new argument. Three decades ago, Philip Khoury identified the “crisis of the secular state” as the root cause of what he termed “Islamic revivalism” in the Arab Middle East. The crisis of the secular state was fundamentally about the inability of nationalist and socialist governments in places like Egypt and Tunisia to deliver the development, material prosperity, and economic performance which they, as modernizing states, had implicitly promised their citizens. Islamic revivalism was a spiritual, social, and eventually political response to “state exhaustion.” Islamist political thought contained both an explanation for the failure of secular development models (for they ignored or even betrayed classical religious principles) and a template for future political action. In various ways, Islamists around the world today use this vision for Islam as a political tool to promise a better life.

The key point is that these movements resonate most among communities for whom the secular state has failed: lower-middle classes, university graduates without jobs, new migrants from the countryside to the cities, and others. The electoral success of Islamists in post-authoritarian Egypt and Tunisia simply reflects the failure of these regimes to make people better off than they were before.

Islam and politics in post-authoritarian Indonesia is different because authoritarian Indonesia was different. If Egypt and Tunisia are case studies in state exhaustion and developmental stagnation, New Order Indonesia is a case study in economic transformation and social development. Under Suharto, female literacy rates skyrocketed and birth rates plummeted. Public debt remained chronically high in Egypt and Tunisia, whereas it was manageable in New Order Indonesia. But the Arab regimes’ unemployment crises had perhaps the most devastating effects on the daily lives of ordinary citizens. Adult unemployment rates never exceeded 40 percent in Indonesia, even during the depths of the Asian Financial Crisis that ultimately drove Suharto from power. In Egypt and Tunisia, adult unemployment rates have exceeded 55 percent for more than two decades.

None of this denies that Suharto was ironfisted, brutal, venal, spectacularly corrupt…the list goes on. The New Order regime can rightly be charged with plundering Indonesia’s economy and eviscerating public trust in state institutions — although its predecessors (from the Dutch East India Company through to Sukarno’s Guided Democracy regime) share part of the blame for the latter as well. Development under the New Order was certainly unequal, with only a fraction of the population able to benefit from gleaming new malls or international airports. Nevertheless, under Suharto, even ordinary Indonesians prospered in ways that they never had before. By the 1990s, when Indonesia joined the ranks of newly industrializing economies, millions of Indonesians could still remember the hyperinflation and polarized political atmosphere of the early 1960s. They could also remember how Suharto brought both to an end, the former through skillful macroeconomic management, the latter through the mass bloodshed that accompanied the extermination of the Indonesian left.

As a consequence, although Islam became increasingly visible in the Indonesian public sphere in the New Order’s later years, this was a compliant, state-managed form of Islam. It was an Islam that supported the New Order regime’s essentially nationalist (rather than religious or sectarian) foundations. Islamists either joined with the New Order (sacrificing their ability to serve as effective regime critics) or remained in the opposition (and subject to state repression). Groups patterned after the Muslim Brotherhood or drawing on tarbiyah movements made some inroads on university campuses and in urban areas, but that was it.

In turn, when Indonesia’s 1997-98 economic meltdown ultimately drove Suharto from power, Islamists in Indonesia — unlike Ennahda or the Muslim Brotherhood — had neither a latent constituency hungry for an Islamic alternative to the New Order, nor the mobilizational networks needed to turn out voters at election time. Facing the regional Asian economic crisis rather than slow-moving developmental debacle, there was no particular reason for Indonesians who were angered by the abrupt end to decades of economic growth to think that a turn to Islam would solve their country’s problems. It is no accident that even today, the image of the New Order as a period of dynamism, optimism, and material progress remains powerful for many Indonesians.

In sum, we should attend to the differences between the growth of political Islam in Indonesia versus Egypt and Tunisia. The crisis of the Arab secular states that Khoury first identified three decades ago had no counterpart in Indonesia. As a result, Islamists have never found the same mobilizational base there, and today, they struggle to present an alternative to mainstream non-Islamist parties in the democratic era.

The central implication of this argument about developmental debacles and the rise of political Islam is that authoritarian legacies matter. The idea of Indonesia as a template for other post-authoritarian Muslim states, or as a model that can be imported to understand transitions in the rest of the Muslim world, must be combined with an appreciation for the model’s limits. In Egypt and Tunisia, priorities such as military professionalization, judicial reform, party system design, and others will usefully draw on Indonesia’s experience, which has much to teach us about the likely course of these reforms during democratic consolidation and the various obstacles and challenges along the way.

But observers and practitioners also care about Islam in these new democracies, and understanding ideological cleavages in newly democratic polities requires a more nuanced analysis of the social and economic legacies of authoritarian rule. Islamist messages do not resonate the same way for all Muslims living under corrupt and repressive regimes, and the counter-hegemonic ideas that emerge under authoritarianism shape the movements that mobilize, and subsequently, their post-authoritarian electoral fortunes.


Note: This is an abridged version of a longer essay entitled “The Limits of the Indonesian Model.”