Young democracy clashed with authoritarian legacies in Indonesia – and it lost

In Indonesia's most recent presidential elections, voters elected a popular strongman. Iqra Anugrah explains that the recent illiberal direction of Indonesian democracy has its roots in the authoritarian legacy of a political figure from the last century: the charismatic, Machiavellian and hugely influential Ali Moertopo

After years of bucking the global authoritarian turn, Indonesia is now led by an illiberal strongman. Victory for Prabowo Subianto in the recent presidential election suggests the hollowing-out of Indonesian democracy. Subianto is a rich ex-general who served during the dictatorship of his former father-in-law Suharto. He is supported by a wide section of elites, including his former rival, outgoing president Joko Widodo (Jokowi).

Towards a 'New Order' in Indonesia

Scholars and activists have long warned about the illiberal direction of Indonesian democracy. The problem, however, is not just about how weakened Indonesia’s democracy has become, but the strength of its authoritarian legacy. The founding and consolidation of Suharto’s dictatorship in 1966 began with the violent overthrow of Sukarno’s populist government. As typical with postcolonial populist experiments, Sukarno’s ‘Guided Democracy’, was an illiberal regime. However, it was also committed to the democratisation of class relations through popular participation of the lower class, extensive land reform, and nationalisation of foreign companies.

After the anti-communist mass killings from 1965–1966, Suharto consolidated his rise to power. His New Order authoritarian regime received wide support from a broad anti-Communist coalition of the army, student activists, middle-class intellectuals, and sections of the bourgeoisie.

Moertopo the Kingmaker

In this political constellation, a man named Ali Moertopo emerged as a Machiavellian kingmaker. An autodidact soldier, Moertopo had participated in anti-colonial military campaign against the Dutch during the 1945–1949 revolution. He played a crucial role as Suharto’s trusted counsellor, intelligence czar, and advisor for the regime’s unofficial think-tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Moertopo was notorious for his role in ensuring the domination of the regime’s corporatist party, Golkar. He tamed opposition forces, and manufactured public support for the regime.

Moertopo managed to propagate and enforce his modernising ideas to the public through statements and speeches which resonated among the anti-Sukarno elites and middle class

But Moertopo was not only a smooth political operator. He codified his thoughts into a wide range of political writings, including National Political Strategies, Cultural Strategies, and Workers and Peasants in Development. Moertopo held high-ranking positions in the Indonesian military and government. By virtue of this, he also managed to propagate his ideas to the Indonesian public through official statements and speeches and turn them into state policies. These ideas resonated among anti-Sukarno sections of the elites and middle class.

Ali Moertopo (centre) at the 1982 Indonesian Film Festival in Jakarta

A manifesto on human nature, politics, and development

Ali Moertopo left behind a huge number of works, but most (in)famous is his political manifesto, Some Basic Thoughts on the Acceleration and Modernization of 25 Years Development (hereafter SBT). Though most likely ghostwritten by CSIS colleagues, the manifesto represents a distillation of Moertopo’s original thinking on human nature, politics, and development.

SBT starts with the immediate political rationale for the formation of the New Order regime. Moertopo acknowledged the importance of anti-colonial struggles during the National Revolution. However, he saw Sukarno’s left-wing populist ‘ideological’ mobilisation as a source of political instability and economic malaise. The way to rectify this aberration after the Revolution, he argued, was by cultivating development than waging an endless social revolt and class warfare.

Moertopo saw left-wing populist ‘ideological’ mobilisation as a source of political instability. He wanted to cultivate development rather than waging an endless social revolt and class warfare

Moertopo therefore attempted to formulate a general paradigmatic framework for Indonesia’s development. He saw this as being on a par with major development philosophies such as the New Deal or social market economy. Moertopo rejected the anti-colonial socialism of Sukarno and the Left. Instead, he was obsessed with a form of state capitalism – promoting stable growth with limited social welfare. He aimed to achieve this through ‘rational’ development planning.

The three pillars of Moertopo's rational development

But what constitutes ‘rational’ development? Moertopo proposed three pillars for his vision. First, a corporatist notion of citizenship, regardless of ethnic, religious, or class background, would promote national development. The second, more controversial pillar is the promotion of ‘democracy’. Moertopo saw this not as participatory democracy or social democratic regime, but as electoral trusteeship, where the masses may only mobilise and voice their aspirations during elections. Beyond that, he argues, they should focus on promoting development and participating in the consumer society. This arrangement is guaranteed by the third pillar, the participation of the Armed Forces in parliamentary process. Moertopo argued that only the military, the most ‘programmatic’ group in Indonesian politics, can ensure the political stability needed for development.

Moertopo’s vision translated into a ‘disciplined’ democracy geared towards capitalist development. It left little space for vibrant oppositional activities or redistributionist policies

Concretely, Moertopo’s vision translated into a ‘disciplined’ democracy geared towards capitalist development. It left little space for vibrant oppositional activities or redistributionist policies in the name of anti-extremism. By enlisting the support of anti-Communist elites and activists, Moertopo ensured Golkar’s electoral dominance as the regime’s ruling party. He masterminded the targeted intimidation and enticement of opposition party figures. He tolerated intellectual, civil society, and cultural activities, proven by his support for CSIS and legal activism, provided such activities were conducted as constructive criticisms for the New Order. Some darker sides of Moertopo’s political engineering included the repression of political Islam and self-determination rights of West Papua and Timor-Leste.

Indonesia's cautionary tale for democracies

Moertopo is long dead, but his legacy serves as a cautionary tale for democracies. It suggests that autocracies rely not only on the domination of political and economic elites and the personal qualities of autocratic leaders, but also on ideological justification for authoritarianism. Here, the role of key thinkers and political operators such as Moertopo becomes consequential because they concocted, and enforced, a vision of enlightened authoritarianism.

Moertopo’s influence might not be directly visible in contemporary Indonesian politics. Traces of his political engineering and thinking, however, remain influential. Golkar, which still exists, has split into different political parties. But these parties are all essentially the same: political vehicles for New Order-linked elites and supporters. Authoritarian sentiments and tactics in the name of defending pluralism and national unity embraced by political elites, including Jokowi and Prabowo, have since 2016 made a return.

Indonesia’s middle-class voters also embrace the paradoxical desire for greater political participation and economic stability at the expense of social justice. Indeed, many of these voters were socialised into Moertopo-style conservative norms. Civil society actors in Indonesia would do well to keep an eye on the afterlives of Moertopo’s authoritarian ideas.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Iqra Anugrah
Iqra Anugrah
Research Fellow, International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden University

Iqra is a political scientist-turned-theorist.

Trained in comparative politics, political theory, and area studies, he has published on development, democracy, social movements, and ideas in Indonesia for outlets such as Cornell University Press and TRaNS: Trans-Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia.

He also serves as a Research Associate at the Institute for Economic and Social Research, Education, and Information (LP3ES) in Jakarta.

Read more articles by this author

Share Article

Republish Article

We believe in the free flow of information Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Loop

Cutting-edge analysis showcasing the work of the political science discipline at its best.
Read more
Advancing Political Science
© 2024 European Consortium for Political Research. The ECPR is a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) number 1167403 ECPR, Harbour House, 6-8 Hythe Quay, Colchester, CO2 8JF, United Kingdom.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram