Unbuilding Blocs

Indonesia's Accountability Deficit in Historical Perspective

Author: Dan Slater


Political blocs and cleavages do not emerge and endure unless political parties construct and cultivate them. When Indonesia democratized in the late 1990s, it appeared that party competition would be characterized by two primary cleavages that had been incubated under Suharto's "New Order": a regime cleavage pitting reformist opponents of the fallen dictatorship against its holdovers, and a religious cleavage distinguishing parties by their views on the proper political role for Islam. Some fifteen years after Suharto's departure, neither a reformist nor a religious bloc exists in Indonesian politics. This is not because reformist and religious themes lack resonance among voters, but because party elites have effectively abandoned cleavage politics by promiscuously sharing power in an all-encompassing party cartel. Party leaders have behaved as if they are more accountable to each other than to their presumptive support blocs, leaving reformist and religious social forces without reliable party champions in national politics. This article traces the origins of Indonesia's "accountability deficit" to the elite deal making that accompanied the formation of the country's first democratic governing coalitions in 1999 and 2001. By promiscuously sharing power across cleavage lines, party leaders fostered voter de-alignment in the 2004 and 2009 elections. This de-alignment has left Indonesian democracy vulnerable to the highly unpredictable politics of individuals rather than the more predictable politics of institutions as the 2014 elections approach, ominously opening the door to populist and anti-system challengers striving to rebuild the political blocs that party elites have recently unbuilt.

Countries: Indonesia

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© 2005 ILO/Crozet M.