Indonesia, a Nation in Transition

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he new Indonesia adopted a federal system of governance for a short time. But for a longer period, within a five-year span (1950-1955), leaders of the new country were eager to adopt a liberal system of government. Although there is no proof that the system ruined the economy, it was clear that the elite’s political stability was shaky. The longest serving prime minister was only two years in office.

The government then held a general election in 1955, the first and only democratic general election Indonesia ever had. But feeling that the country was still unstable two years after the election, president Sukarno, backed by the Army, declared the 1950 Provisional Constitution void and reintroduced the 1945 Constitution. The latter provided an ample opportunity for Sukarno, popularly known as Bung Karno (Comrade Sukarno), to balance three political powers — the Indonesian Communist Party, the Army and himself.

In the first half of the 1960s, Bung Karno leaned toward the left. On domestic politics, he was trying hard to balance the communists and the Army; on the international stage he was establishing himself as leader of a new world, free from Cold War antagonism. But economic decline and mounting conflicts, especially between communists and noncommunists, the latter of which was backed by the Army, caused him to lose control over the situation.

On Sept. 30, 1965, an abortive coup occurred. There are two conflicting versions of events surrounding the attempted coup. The official Army version insists that the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was behind the coup attempt, while the communist version asserts that the coup was an internal matter of the Army. In fact, several members of PKI’s central bureau were involved, as well as many Army officers and personnel.

The abortive coup cost Indonesia dearly. It took the lives of seven high-ranking Army generals, followed by a pogrom of communists — a moderate estimate ranges between 300 thousand and 500 thousand alleged members of PKI. Soeharto, who then was a major general and commander of the Army Strategic Reserves Command, took over leadership and deposed Bung Karno from his presidential seat.

In 1966, Soeharto received a letter known as the March 11 Letter of Instruction which reportedly transferred state power from Sukarno to him.

In 1967, Soeharto unseated Sukarno as president in the special session of the Provisional People’s Consultative Assembly (MPRS).

Consolidating his power under a new regime called the New Order, Soeharto launched a “regime cleansing” against the Old Order.

Together with Hamengkubuwono IX, the sultan of Yogyakarta, and Adam Malik — the three were known as the triumvirate — Soeharto divided the tasks for economic and political reconstruction. Sultan Hamengkubuwono was assigned to lead efforts for economic recovery, Adam Malik was assigned to redirect Indonesia’s foreign policy toward the West, and Soeharto himself was “assigned” to rebuild the lamentable domestic politics.

Soeharto was determined to change Indonesia’s course, from its emphasis on politics to prioritizing economic development. He set up the trilogy of development: political stability, economic growth and equality.

To gain political legitimacy, perceived as a prerequisite to economic growth, the government conducted a general election in 1971. The election, however, was far from democratic. Soeharto introduced the “floating mass” concept that banned political parties from operating at village level.


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