But Suharto was also thinking about how to create a political counterweight to the active senior officer corps, a generation younger than his own. The solution was remarkable. Throughout much of his dictatorship Suharto had been visibly hostile to political Islam. In the 1970s, his political spymaster Ali Murtopo had created a Komando Jihad, partly formed by released and desperate prisoners from the failed Islamic-state rebel movement of the 1950s and early 60s. Some of these sad mercenaries had carried out an amateurish bombing of part of Borobudur, the famous 9th-century Buddhist stupa in Central Java. It suited the regime’s book to have ‘Islamic terrorists’ secretly on its payroll. Then, suddenly, in his old age, Suharto took his family on a highly publicized, deluxe pilgrimage to Mecca, from which he returned not only as a ‘Haji’ but with an entirely fictitious, new first name—Muhammad!

Habibie was now instructed to create what was briefly known as the League of Muslim Indonesian Intellectuals (icmi). The engineer learned fast. He had previously astonished pious Indonesian Muslims in the us by telling them that the Prophet was akin to a television set, faithfully transmitting Allah’s programmes to serious viewers. But Muslim intellectuals, excluded from power for decades, rushed to join the icmi, also with Machiavellian intentions. Suharto might wish to use them, but they would also use him—and they were much younger. As it turned out icmi, which had no social or religious base, disappeared in a puff of smoke when the dictatorship collapsed. But Suharto’s calculation had been that, although Habibie would have general Muslim support in counterpoise to the army, he would be too weak not to need to turn to the Great Sage for instructions and help.
Suharto terrified people, not only on the basis of his blood-stained record, but by his demeanour—chilly, silent, masked, except for occasional eruptions of real or staged rage. But with international backing he also acquired the resources to buy people on a massive scale. In the early years of the regime, it was his fellow-generals who were the main beneficiaries of his largesse, but after 1973 and opec it was increasingly the so-called technocrats, economists and engineers of many different types who became the richest (non-Chinese) people in the country, as they were given control of the ministries of oil and gas, basic and light industry, finance, foreign trade, employment and so on. They had no political base and were reliably loyal and compliant.

In his final years, however, it was Muslims (often of Arab descent), especially Muslim technocrats and intellectuals, on whom the cornucopia fell. A whole generation and a half of politicians grew up within and absorbed the authoritarian, corrupt and clientelist political culture that Suharto created. He liked to play them off against each other, but would tolerate no substantial or inflammatory rhetoric. Deliberately or not, he created over time the Indonesian national oligarchy of today: quarrelsome, but intermarried; competitive, but avoiding any serious internal conflict; without ideas, but determined to hang on to what they have, at all costs. This is the main reason why Suharto remained above the law after his fall, and why his children, except for the murderer Tommy, continue to control many of the country’s television stations, tollways and other strategic assets. The crucial thing is that this national oligarchy and its hangers-on are largely incapable of thinking outside the old regime’s box. Cynics joke that there used to be one big Suharto; now there are hundreds of little ones.
How did the oligarchy survive the popular demands for reform after the mass protests that erupted as a result of the 1997 financial crisis? One reason was the deep-seated fragmentation of the electorate, reminiscent of the elections of 1955. The biggest winner in 1999 was the ‘secular nationalist’ party led by Megawati, a lazy and overweight daughter of Sukarno. But it failed to get even one third of the votes, and lost support in succeeding elections. All governments since then have had to be coalitions.

Second, under the constitutional rules inherited from the Suharto era, the president was not popularly elected (until 2004), but rather selected by the party-dominated Supreme People’s Consultative Assembly. After the national elections of 1999, when the reform tide was still high, this body elevated Abdurrahman Wahid, whose party won 10 per cent of the vote—partly because of his popularity with the reformers, but mainly because he was too weak to prevent his cabinet being packed by nominees from all the other political parties and the military, with Megawati as his vice-president. Rather full of himself (‘I got a message from Allah summoning me to be President’), Wahid felt humiliated by his position, and tried to extract himself by conspicuous interventions into internal army affairs, a drastic reshuffling of his cabinet and various other manoeuvres. He lasted only a year and a half, at which point all the parties except his own agreed to impeach him and remove him from office. When Megawati succeeded him, she promised and delivered a ‘rainbow’ cabinet, in which all the parties (if one includes a renegade from Wahid’s who became Defence Minister) had their quotas. The target of the oligarchy had been achieved: a parliament without an opposition, and every party clique sharing in the perquisites of power. Sukarno’s daughter was not an energetic figure in any case, but the absolute lack of any creative initiatives during the three years of her presidency was also due to what Dan Slater has nicely termed the cartelization of the political system. [9]

A third factor was the general outlook of the oligarchy, which feared popular mobilizations outside their control, fully accepted the neo-liberal international order, and had no interest in anything that smelled of the left. The army leaders not only accepted the cartel but were important players within it. Nonetheless, as the popularity of the parties visibly declined, the oligarchy felt forced to change the method of electing the president, by opening the office to the sentiments of the national electorate. This is how, in 2004, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, an unassuming but intelligent Javanese (retired) general, a key behind-the-scenes member of the oligarchy and Megawati’s Senior Minister for Security and Defence, became Indonesia’s first popularly elected president. But the party he created for himself did not do well, and he has largely succumbed to the logic of cartelization: passivity, systematic incorporation of any possible parliamentary opposition, and catholic division of the emoluments in his gift. It is not very likely that he will be re-elected in 2009, but his replacement will not be very different, barring some popular upheaval which seems for now over the horizon.


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