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Jakarta Post

The dilemma of political opposition in Indonesia

  • Andi Rahman Alamsyah and Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, November 7, 2014   /  09:29 am

In the current political situation, many believe the political performance of the Red-and-White Coalition of former presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto is part of its role as the opposition to cause political instability, but the conduct of its members in the House of Representatives would be more of a strategy for increasing bargaining power over President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo, rather than improving checks and balances, as they claim.

This is by no means new in Indonesian politics.

A senior Golkar politician even said his party has always been a supporter of the government, although it is currently in Prabowo'€™s coalition, which dominates the 560 seats in the House.

In past presidential elections after the New Order ended in 1998, political parties who previously nominated their own candidates created coalitions to support the winner as part of the ruling government.

For example, in the 2004 presidential election former military commander Wiranto of Golkar, Amien Rais from the National Mandate Party (PAN) and Hamzah Haz from the United Development Party (PPP), who were the rivals of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, later became partners of the coalition supporting the government.

In the 2009 presidential elections, Golkar, which previously supported their own candidate Jusuf Kalla and Wiranto, also joined the ruling coalition after Yudhoyono was re-elected.

The question is why most political parties in Indonesia avoid being in the opposition.

There are three reasons: first, the negative perceptions among the public and politicians toward opposition parties, which are perceived as troublemakers and destroyers of stability that hamper the accomplishment of government programs.

Second, reluctance to become the opposition is associated with the pragmatic purposes of the parties as well as of the politicians.

Maintaining political parties is not largely done by strengthening relations with their constituencies through creating a political alliance with the public, but through sustaining their good relationship with the government in order to gain various resources.

Building party offices, rent-seeking, accessing venues for party activities and even supporting the lavish lifestyles of politicians are among the advantages of having good relations with government offices and officials.

Third, the New Order legacy has strengthened the aversion to being in the opposition.

The floating-mass policy, which was implemented to cut political parties off from genuine attachment to grass-roots social organizations, has continued to contribute to the gap between political parties and citizens.

Political parties thus remain elitist and many citizens remain apolitical as people were used to avoiding trouble so as to not be labelled critics of the harsh regime.

Participation in politics was narrowly defined as activities that endorsed government programs. As a result, political parties became alienated from society.

This argument contrasts the institutional approach and cultural-oriented analysis in explaining the problems of the opposition in Indonesian politics.

According to the institutional perspective, the type of governmental and political system determines the form of coalition or opposition.

Since Indonesia uses the presidential system together with a multi-party system, it hardly recognizes any opposition party.

It is also difficult to produce a single majority to win an election in a multi-party system.

This approach also believes that a presidential system, combined with a multi-party system, will lead to a weak government as the ruling party hardly ever dominates parliament.

As a consequence, the ruling party will need to create a coalition with other parties to strengthen support from the legislative body.

Given the economic and political advantages, political parties are more interested in being part of the coalition rather than being in the opposition.

According to the cultural approach, the oppositional stance is believed to be based on western values instead of Indonesian culture.

The traditional values of Indonesian society, which are said to be reflected in Pancasila, consist of unity, harmony, tolerance, the family principle (kekeluargaan) and mutual assistance (gotong royong).

They have made Indonesian politics appear to be concerned more with collectivism and integration rather than with antagonism and opposition.

These principles were mostly applied throughout the New Order politics to legitimize power. To illustrate, the state was considered as an organic family that lived in harmony and was led by its charismatic father.

In making a decision, consensual agreement was the basic principle used, rather than public debate or voting. As a result, these values are still believed to represent the nature of Indonesian society and they hamper the existence and strength of an opposition.

Both the institutional approach and culturally oriented analysis have ignored political dynamics
that contribute to an effective opposition.

Since the cultural argument was politicised by the previous regime to control society and maintain political integration, essentialist views of a harmonious and tolerant Indonesian culture are largely irrelevant for analysing the absence of the opposition party.

And although Indonesia applies a presidential and multi-party system, there is still an opportunity to create a strong political alliance to become the opposition.

From the cases of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and Gerindra Party in the previous regime, being an opposition party is important not only for the mobilization of more support, but also in strengthening checks and balances.

However, since pragmatism seems dominant among political parties, deciding to be the opposition still poses a dilemma for those concerned.

Thus, to avoid rent-seeking politics, opposition parties must have sufficient financial resources or engage in asceticism, like by minimizing operational costs, building intensive communications with the people to create networks of volunteers and by campaigning on humble lifestyles for their politicians.


Andi Rahman Alamsyah is from the School of Sociology at the University of Indonesia; Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir is from the School of Sociology at Jakarta State University.

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