Republic of Indonesia

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Republic of Indonesia

Type of Government

The Republic of Indonesia is a democracy that includes a bicameral legislature and an executive branch headed by the president, who serves as both head of government and chief of state. Its constitution enumerates a state philosophy known as the Five Principles (Pancasila): monotheism, humanitarianism, national unity, representative democracy by consensus, and social justice. Indonesian courts include both civil and religious branches, and litigants may often choose the court system that will hear their cases.


Indonesia is a volcano-laden archipelago of 17,500 islands in Southeast Asia. The fourth largest country in the world by population, its majority Muslim population of 222 million makes it the world’s most populous nation of that faith. Indonesians were major maritime traders as early as AD 600, and economic ties to India and China brought Buddhism to the largest and most populous islands of the chain, including Java, Sumatra, South Borneo, and Bali. Its people are of a diverse ethnicity, with some 45 percent of Javanese heritage and the remainder Sundanese, Madurese, Malay, Chinese, and other groups. Islam became firmly established in Sumatra in the 1300s, with the other islands gradually adopting this faith brought by traders over the next few centuries. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to conduct business in Indonesia, followed by the Dutch, who founded the Dutch East India Company in 1602 to establish dominance in the profitable spice trade. By 1800 Indonesia was a colony of the Netherlands and known as the Dutch East Indies.

An Indonesian nationalism movement arose in the early years of the twentieth century, led by such groups as Budi Utomo (Pure Endeavor) and then Sarekat Dagang Islam, or Union of Islamic Traders. The Communist Party of Indonesia and the Indonesian Nationalist Party later agitated for self-rule, but that goal was stymied by Japan’s invasion in 1942 during World War II. As Japanese forces prepared to surrender, Indonesian nationalist groups readied a constitution and proclaimed the Indonesian Republic on August 17, 1945. The Dutch objected, however, and a four-year war of independence ensued that finally ended on December 27, 1949, the date when sovereignty was formally transferred by the Dutch as a result of international pressure.

Indonesia’s first leader was the founder of the Indonesian Nationalist Party (Partai Nasional Indonesia, or PNI), Ahmed Sukarno (1901–1970), commonly known as Sukarno. Members of other political parties were seated for the first parliament, which confirmed Sukarno as Indonesia’s first president and then fellow PNI member Mohammad Hatta (1902–1980) as Sukarno’s vice president. Unrest followed for the next decade, however, with some elements in the country wishing for a stronger Islamic presence in the new government and hampering efforts to draft a new constitution. A federal constitution had gone into effect in 1949, replacing the one drafted at the end of World War II, followed by a provisional one in 1950. In 1959 Sukarno restored the original 1945 document by decree. For the next six years, he ruled Indonesia by a system he called “Guided Democracy” until he was removed by force. His successor was a military general, Suharto (1921–)—also known by one name—who remained president until democratic reforms began in 1998.

Government Structure

Indonesia’s first constitution, written during the final weeks of the Japanese occupation, was replaced by a provisional one, which went into effect on August 17, 1950, and remained so until the restoration of the original 1945 document. Sukarno, Hatta, and other PNI members were instrumental in drafting its preamble, which set forth the Five Principles known as Pancasila: monotheism, humanitarianism, national unity, representative democracy by consensus, and social justice.

The executive branch is embodied in the president, who serves as both head of government and chief of state. The president is limited to two terms in office, and appoints a cabinet. Amendments to Indonesia’s constitution in 2001 and 2002 ended the previous method of presidential election by parliament in favor of direct popular vote. In order to field a presidential candidate, a party must achieve a minimum of 3 percent of the seats in the lower house of the legislature, or at least 5 percent of the vote in the last national legislative election.

Indonesia has a bicameral legislature known as the People’s Consultative Assembly (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat, or MPR), with a total of 678 members. The larger of the two bodies is the People’s Representative Council (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, or DPR). Its members are elected to five-year terms. The 2004 legislative elections marked the last time that a proportional-representation system would be used to elect 462 of its members; another 38 represented the country’s military and police forces. Under the new law, effective with the 2009 elections, seats for army and law-enforcement officials were abolished, and all members will be chosen by direct vote. The other legislative body is the Regional Representative Council (Dewan Perwakilan Daerah, or DPD). Its 128 members are made up of 4 members each from the 32 provinces. It has limited authority, and cannot make changes to legislation originating in the DPR.

The judicial authority in Indonesia is its Supreme Court, whose duty is to review decisions of lower courts. Technically, a Constitutional Court possesses the power to review legislation, but has never exercised this right. The central government appoints judges to all benches. The state courts serve as courts of first instance in civil and criminal cases, followed by district appeals courts. The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal for the decisions of these lower courts as well as those heard in separate commercial courts and state administrative courts. There are also separate sharia courts that are permitted to handle certain cases, mostly relating to family law and inheritance disputes. Muslims and non-Muslims can choose which court they wish to hear their case.

Suffrage in Indonesia is universal from the age of seventeen; those younger than seventeen who are married also have the right to vote. The country is divided into thirty-three administrative provinces, which are governed by local legislatures and elected governors. Four provinces enjoy more autonomy from central government decisions: one is Jakarta, the federal capital; another is Atjeh, which was allowed to establish its own sharia-based legal system in 2003; Yogyakarta, on the island of Java, enjoys certain privileges because it sheltered the PNI during the Japanese occupation; Papua has Special Autonomy status as a compromise after years of resistance to Jakarta’s rule.

Political Parties and Factions

Indonesia’s early years of self-rule were dominated by the Indonesian Nationalist Party, but during Sukarno’s Guided Democracy era, he allowed the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) to gradually infiltrate domestic politics. There were even secret talks with the Soviet Union and China, and this dalliance with the left alarmed the West and played a role in the decision by the United States to intervene more forcefully in Vietnam when its Community Party began to gain power during this same period.

At the time the PKI was the third-largest communist party in the world after its Soviet and Chinese mentors, but there was not much mass support, and a movement to arm its supporters in 1965 incited further worry. The Indonesian military, in particular, was adamantly opposed to this plan, and on the night of September 30–October 1, 1965, six generals were slain in what was later revealed to be Sukarno’s attempt to stage an internal communist coup. His rival was Suharto, who was at the time a member of Golkar Party, formed in 1964 to represent several non-governmental organizations. The Golkar leadership soon won the backing of military brass opposed to Sukarno, and became the leading party after Suharto and the Army Strategic Reserve successfully retaliated against the attempted coup and murder of the generals. The communist PKI was banned after that, and the Golkar Party ruled the country from 1966 to 1998.

In June 1999 free and fair elections were held in Indonesia for the first time since 1955. A staggering forty-eight political parties competed for seats in the MPR, with the most liberal of them, the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDIP, or Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) winning 34 percent of the seats. Others who won a place included the Golkar Party, the National Awakening Party, and the United Development Party.

Major Events

The first decade of Indonesian self-rule was marked by strife and internal dissension over the role of Islam in the civic life of the country. This and other tensions from areas that objected to Jakarta’s rule led Sukarno to declare martial law in March of 1957, followed by the period of Guided Democracy from 1959 to 1965. The Dutch remained a presence on the western half of the island of New Guinea, and in the late 1950s allowed it to move toward independence. The Indonesian government opposed this, and a small war threatened to erupt in 1961 between Indonesian forces—who had received Soviet military aid—and the Dutch protectors. The United Nations intervened, the Dutch exited, and the western half of New Guinea became Irian Jaya and later Western Papua. A 1969 referendum was held on whether or not to join Indonesia, and a suspiciously large number of Western Papuans—100 percent—voted in favor of Indonesian rule, allegedly after strong pressure from troops and political operatives loyal to Jakarta.

The Malay Archipelago island of Timor has also presented problems for Indonesia’s leadership. It was divided as Indonesian Timor (later West Timor) and its eastern half was known as Portuguese Timor until the European colonial rule ended in 1975. Indonesia then annexed East Timor, but an independence movement arose that finally succeeded in 1999, with the East Timorese achieving self-rule after a referendum monitored by the United Nations. This spurred independence movements in other areas of the Indonesian archipelago, among them Atjeh and Papua.

The most significant event in modern Indonesian political history after the Night of the Generals (as the 1965 massacre and attempted coup is known) came in 1998 with widespread demonstrations against Suharto’s regime. The unrest was linked to serious economic hardships prompted by the Asian economic crisis of 1997, and also reflected public discontent with a regime that had become infamously corrupt. Suharto finally resigned in May 1998, and a transitional government was installed. In October 1999 the MPR chose Abdurrahman Wahid (1940–) of the National Awakening Party (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, or PKB) as the new president. Less than two years later, the MPR voted into office Indonesia’s first woman president, Megawati Sukarnoputri (1947–) of the PDIP.

Twenty-First Century

Indonesia suffered immense losses in the Asian tsunami that resulted from an earthquake under the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004. Particularly hard hit were the areas of Sumatra and Atjeh, where coastal regions were completely devastated and more than 200,000 people lost their lives. In addition, an estimated 500,000 Indonesians were left homeless. Rebuilding the area and serving the health needs of the population posed unprecedented challenges to government agencies, and international relief efforts brought attention to the infighting that characterized regional politics. However, in the cooperative environment that resulted from the natural disaster, militant independence groups in the affected region agreed to end their opposition to the government and disbanded in 2005.

While a peaceful resolution was reached in Atjeh, terrorism presents the biggest threat to continued stability elsewhere in Indonesia. In October 2002 a nightclub in Bali—Indonesia’s most popular tourist destination for foreign visitors—was the target of a dual suicide- and car-bomb attack that killed 202 people from more than 20 countries. Members of Jemaah Islamiyah (Islamic Community) were prosecuted for the crime. This is a militant group whose goal is to establish an Islamic state across Indonesia, Malaysia, parts of the Philippines, Singapore, and Brunei. It has also been blamed for a bomb attack on the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2004. In August 2006 the man believed to be one of al Qaeda’s top leaders, Ayman al-Zawahiri (1951–), issued a video statement in which he pledged that al Qaeda would join with Jemaah Islamiyah to eliminate enemies of Islam.

Brown, Colin. A Short History of Indonesia: The Unlikely Nation? Melbourne: Allen & Unwin, 2003.

Elson, Robert E. Suharto: A Political Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Vickers, Adrian. A History of Modern Indonesia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.