Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Taming of Ethnic Conflict in Indonesia

For more than a decade, Indonesia has had a reputation for being afflicted by serious ethnic and other forms of communal conflict. In the early years of the transition to democracy after President Suharto resigned in 1998, there were serious episodes of ethnic violence in many provinces.

In parts of Kalimantan, ethnic Madurese settlers were killed and driven from their homes; there were bitter communal wars in Maluku, North Maluku and Central Sulawesi, as well as serious violence associated with ethnonationalist mobilization in Aceh and Papua.

Anti-Chinese riots in several towns and cities accompanied the protests that helped bring down Suharto.

But now, more than 12 years after democratization began, there is remarkably little organized ethnic conflict, and ethnicity rests only lightly on national politics.

Not only has the incidence of communal violence declined sharply, but new modes of interethnic coalition building and cooperation have emerged.

This is most visible in the direct elections of local government heads that are held every five years in the country’s 33 provinces and more than 500 districts.

In areas that are ethnically mixed, a new political norm has emerged during these elections: the formation of cross-ethnic coalitions.

For example, in the recent mayoral election in Medan, 10 pairs of mayoral and deputy mayor candidates contested the first round of the vote: every pair consisted of two individuals from different ethnic groups.

This pattern is typical of multiethnic regions.

Candidates know that unless they try to broaden their appeal by seeking support beyond their own ethnic group, they stand little chance of victory.

When they campaign in such regions, candidates also expend much effort trying to show that they are responsive to the interests of multiple groups: They seek endorsements of differing ethnic associations, they attend various cultural activities and they choose campaign slogans that stress pluralism.

This is not to say that ethnicity is irrelevant. On the contrary, there is an emerging body of evidence to suggest that voters in many regions tend to prefer voting for political candidates from their own ethnic group.

But in most parts of the country, elections take place in an atmosphere of ethnic compromise, rather than ethnic competition.

Part of the explanation for the emergence of ethnic peace lies in the simple fading of the turbulence of Indonesia’s democratic transition.

But much of the explanation also lies in the set of political institutions designed by Indonesia’s national leaders when the country began its democratic transition.

One consequential decision was to disallow local political parties.

In Indonesia, only political parties that can show they have a broad national presence are eligible to run in elections.

Local parties are not allowed, making it very difficult for ethnic parties to establish a foothold (the only exception is in Aceh which, as a result of the 2005 Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding that ended that territory’s separatist war, is the only part of Indonesia where local parties are allowed).

Overall, the result is that the contentious ethnic politics of the early years of the transition were never crystallized, captured or perpetuated by the party system.

Another key factor has been the decentralization of political and economic power, a massive reform initiated in the years immediately following the fall of Suharto.

However, decentralization came with a catch. Power was devolved not to the large provinces, but to the much smaller districts.

This has had the effect of fragmenting politics and splitting political identities.

When political actors seek power at the district level, it makes little sense for them to appeal to large ethnic constituencies of the sort that could potentially be state-challenging.

Indonesia is one of the world’s great multiethnic societies. With a total population of around 230 million, at the last census, more than 1,000 separate ethnic groups were listed.

The largest single group is the Javanese, at about 41 percent of the population, next are the Sundanese, with about 15 percent, then there are many smaller groups.

Many regions of the country lack a dominant core but are instead complex mixtures of large numbers of groups.

This context is the setting in which a new politics of ethnic compromise is emerging.

Had Indonesia’s democratic transition played out differently, it could easily have become an arena of ethnic polarization and entrenched conflict.

It is a remarkable achievement that the democratic transition avoided this outcome.

East Asia Forum

Edward Aspinall is the head of the Department of Political and Social Change at the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at Australian National University.

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