How Indonesia Won a Constitution

Issue Date April 2014
Volume 25
Issue 2
Page Numbers 171-178
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A review of Constitutional Change and Democracy in Indonesia by Donald L. Horowitz.

Scholars of democratization generally agree that constitutions play a key role in determining the outcome of democratic transitions. Welldrafted constitutions can serve as a solid foundation for young democracies, while flawed charters often lead to unstable polities and, in some cases, democratic reversals. Experts also tend to concur that it is not only the substantive content of constitutions that matters for postauthoritarian trajectories—the process through which constitutions get produced is of equal importance. But the agreement ends there.

Observers of constitution-making processes are deeply divided over how best to write a charter: Some (like Jon Elster) believe that the task of constitution-drafting is best handed to a special independent committee whose members are not legislators. Others (John M. Carey, for example) contend that constitutions should be written by directly elected representatives. There are similar disagreements over the most suitable sequence of debating and passing a constitution: While some favor a speedy drafting process followed by a referendum and elections, others recommend the reverse—elections first, after which the newly instituted government and legislature can take their time reaching a consensus on controversial constitutional issues.

About the Author

Marcus Mietzner is an associate professor at the Coral Bell School.

View all work by Marcus Mietzner

The critical importance of an inclusive and appropriately sequenced constitution-making process typically becomes evident when it fails. Most recently, Egypt’s democratic transition collapsed after the Muslim [End Page 171] Brotherhood–led government pushed through a pro-Islamic constitution within six months of coming to power. Egypt’s liberal-secular forces boycotted the constitutional assembly and then lobbied the military to overthrow democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. Morsi’s overthrow, and the political events that caused it, have been the subject of numerous scholarly analyses and press reports. By contrast, successful cases of constitution-drafting usually receive less attention, even though they hold invaluable lessons for other new democracies hoping to avoid an Egypt-style outcome. Donald L. Horowitz’s fine book Constitutional Change and Democracy in Indonesia makes an important contribution in this regard, offering the country that is home to the world’s largest Muslim population as a model for a well-managed process of constitution-drafting and, by implication, a successfully completed democratic transition.

Rich in empirical detail as well as comparative reflections, Horowitz’s book provides a masterful step-by-step account of how Indonesia chose a “gradual, insider-dominated, elections-first [approach to] constitution making” (p. 262), and how this particular choice helped Indonesia to consolidate its democracy. In Horowitz’s view, the process of amending Indonesia’s 1945 Constitution—which stretched from 1998 to 2002—allowed for careful fine-tuning of institutional arrangements and thus produced a sensibly crafted balance of power among Indonesia’s key political actors. Even more important, this process created a channel of communication through which they could interact and reduce their suspicions of one another. The result was a “configuration of institutions that reinforces fluidity and intergroup alliances against the danger of bifurcation” (p. 262). This rather atypical multipolar configuration combined majoritarian presidentialism with a list-PR system for legislative elections, providing mechanisms both for cross-constituency cooperation in presidential contests and for proportional group representation in parliamentary polls. While Horowitz cautions that this mix of institutional models may not work in other countries, he argues that it was the right path for post-Suharto Indonesia.

Horowitz’s book is noteworthy not only for situating the Indonesian case within the broader scholarly literature on constitutional choices, but also for its prudent stress on historical contingency. In trying to answer the question of why Indonesia succeeded where other countries failed, Horowitz highlights the importance of four “aversive memories” that influenced the drafters of the post-Suharto constitution. These memories (of mass violence, territorial separatism, deliberative deadlock, and party fragmentation) had their roots in Indonesia’s failed experiment with democracy in the 1950s. At that time, an unsuccessful attempt at drafting a new constitution, combined with extreme multipartism and regional rebellions, had given nondemocratic actors the ammunition to terminate democratic rule. With the help of the [End Page 172] military, Sukarno established in 1959 the autocratic regime known as “Guided Democracy,” and it was a group of army leaders that removed him in 1965 amid an anticommunist purge that killed at least a halfmillion people. This legacy of violence and democratic breakdown led many analysts in 1998 to predict that Indonesia’s chances at successful democratization were slim, but Horowitz compellingly demonstrates that these failures did not obstruct postauthoritarian reforms. On the contrary, they were crucial in motivating decision makers to avoid repeating history.

Horowitz’s emphasis on the advantages of an inclusive, insider-driven process of constitution-making that prioritized consensus over polarization (and produced a political system that mirrored this principle) is groundbreaking because it contradicts an increasingly influential school in the study of Indonesian politics. In recent years, scholars such as Dan Slater and Kuskridho Ambardi have found a growing following with their thesis that a large party cartel (which emerged at the time the constitutional amendments were forged) has taken control of the post-Suharto polity. This cartel, they argue, has ruled through various oversized cabinets since the late 1990s, and is held together by its determination to exploit state resources and to paralyze the accountability mechanisms that could thwart this exploitation. As a result, interparty competition is said to have ceased, and elections have supposedly become a sham in which voters are given the illusion of choice where none really exists. Thus for Slater and Ambardi, the inclusiveness, institutionalized crossconstituency cooperation, and depolarization of ideological schisms that Horowitz views as crucial for the survival of the post-Suharto polity are the ingredients of its failure.

Horowitz directly engages with the cartelization school, questioning its premise that large coalitions are essentially a rent-seeking enterprise. Reflecting on the decisions arrived at by Indonesia’s constitution makers, Horowitz writes that “for the parties to distribute rents among themselves, it would have been more convenient to have either a parliamentary system or, perhaps better yet, a president appointed by the legislature” (pp. 282–83). These were not the decisions taken, however, suggesting that other motives must have been at play. For Horowitz, “an unusually cooperative politics had a number of benefits for Indonesia … it helped create a democratic constitution, and it softened further the cleavages that might otherwise have endangered the functioning of the democratic dispensation” (pp. 286). Indeed, given the experiences of the mid-1950s, when ideological battles over the role of Islam in state organization and the most suitable system for center-periphery relations destroyed democracy, the ability of the post-Suharto elite to de-escalate such tensions must be viewed as an asset, not a liability. Countries in which elites are able to agree on key principles of governance (and occasionally to share power in government) [End Page 173] are much less likely to witness democratic reversals than those in which political bifurcation prevents cross-party cooperation—Egypt and Thailand are only the latest examples of states where a winnertakes-all dynamic has destroyed democratic government.

In spite of his general praise for Indonesia’s success at constitutionmaking and democratization, Horowitz clearly notes its many deficiencies. Describing Indonesia as a low-quality democracy, Horowitz cites the country’s failure to fully establish institutional mechanisms of control over the armed forces, its persistently high levels of corruption, its rule-of-law deficit, and the weak protections that it affords to religious minorities. For Horowitz, none of these shortcomings is surprising—they accompany many democratic transitions and continue to plague even democracies in advanced stages of consolidation. In his view, the long-term entrenchment of functional democracy is likely to mitigate these problems, as such mitigation is among the “benefits of democracy, rather than [the] attributes of it” (p. 210).

For many longtime observers of Indonesian politics, this incremental interpretation of the country’s democratic deficits might be unsatisfactory. Sixteen years into the postauthoritarian era, corruption among political elites shows no sign of abating, and the rights of religious minorities have even declined somewhat under democratic rule. Hence, the notion advanced by many critical scholars that these problems will remain with Indonesia for a long time is at least as plausible as Horowitz’s expectation of democratic dividends.

While Horowitz’s analysis and narrative are admirably comprehensive, some elements of them deserve further inquiry. Analytically, it would have been fruitful to discuss the Indonesian constitution not only through the comparative lens of charter-drafting practices, but also in light of the literature on postauthoritarian civil-military relations. Although Suharto had established a personal autocracy, his rule relied on the continued support of the military. Thus removing the armed forces from politics was an urgent priority for post-Suharto civilians, and the successful completion of the constitutional amendments in 2002 was a critical milestone in this regard. The military sensed this, and therefore rejected the revisions. Horowitz understates the military’s opposition (and the civilian success in overcoming it) when noting that “the armed forces commander … implied that the military would prefer that the 1945 constitution be reinstated in full” (p. 118). As a matter of fact, the commander “recommended” on 30 July 2002 that all amendments adopted since 1998 be annulled, or that a new constitution be written after 2004. If either of these options had come about, the instability of the civilian polity would have persisted, preserving the privileged position of the military. Much to their credit, however, civilian leaders gave the commander only two choices: Either endorse the amendments or be pushed aside. The armed forces [End Page 174] gave in, tilting the civil-military power balance strongly in favor of the civilians.

In narrative terms, Horowitz’s book could have conveyed a clearer sense of the vulnerability of Indonesia’s transition in general and the constitution-drafting process in particular. Occasionally, Horowitz’s account gives the impression that post-Suharto political actors made wellthought-out, rational choices in designing an incrementalist approach to constitution-making that eventually led to the desired outcome. In reality, however, Indonesia came very close to a constitutional breakdown in mid-2001, when President Abdurrahman Wahid tried to disband parliament, ban a major political party, and use the security forces to defend himself against the opposition’s impeachment campaign.

Arguably, it was only this experience of near failure of the democratic transition that convinced the elite that wide-ranging reform was unavoidable. Wahid’s disastrous presidency, and its collapse in 2001, drove home the point that the head of state needed a strong popular mandate drawn from a direct election; that a constitutional court had to be created to watch over future impeachment proceedings; and that the relationship among the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary had to be redefined. It is difficult to judge how the Indonesian constitution would have evolved had the much less combative Megawati Sukarnoputri, and not Wahid, become president in 1999. But without Wahid’s dramatic demonstration that the status quo was unworkable, it is unlikely that the reform drive of the Indonesian elite would have been so forceful.

Overall, however, Horowitz’s book is the best to appear so far on Indonesia’s surprising emergence as one of the great democratic success stories of the last two decades. It is also the first book-length study on Indonesia by a leading comparative political scientist—adding a muchneeded conceptual perspective to the more country-specific accounts produced by Indonesia experts. With its measured and well-argued assessment of Indonesia’s long-term democratic progress, Horowitz’s book provides an important counterweight to the critical literature on the country’s political shortcomings published in recent years. Horowitz does not deny the existence of these deficiencies, but he manages to explain why Indonesia has nevertheless succeeded in building a durable democratic system when so many other young democracies have foundered. In doing so, Horowitz has put Indonesia on the map of comparative political science and, more specifically, of the study of democratization—a map that has excluded this highly complex and geopolitically important Muslim democracy for too long. [End Page 175]