Jakarta, the capital and largest city of Indonesia, is located on the island of Java. The number of people residing in greater Jakarta is estimated at 23 million, making it the fourth largest urban area in the world. The city acts as the country's economic, cultural and political center.
The Republic of Indonesia is an archipelago between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean in Southeast Asia. The country is comprised of 17,508 islands, and with an estimated population of approximately 237 million people, it is the world's fourth most populous country.
Colonial Rule & Independence
Prior to its colonization, the Republic of Indonesia did not exist as the unified state recognized today. Instead, portions of the vast archipelago and its 17,000 islands were tenuously controlled by competing empires until the establishment of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th Century and eventual Dutch colonial control. Lying at the crossroads of several major maritime trade routes, Indonesia has long been of strategic and economic importance, not only within the region but also on a global scale. From the late 1600s, the Dutch sought to consolidate their control over the territory and counter the influence of the Portuguese, British, Spanish, and French colonies elsewhere in the region. When World War II broke out, the Japanese occupation (1942-1945) further consolidated control over the islands. In doing so, the Japanese trained local armed groups to maintain order throughout the islands – groups which would later go on to form the foundation of a revolutionary army. Upon Japanese withdrawal at the end of the war, Indonesian nationalists took control, declaring the state the Independent Republic of Indonesia in August 1945, which the Netherlands recognized on December 27, 1949.
Early Independence – The Rule & Overthrow of Sukarno
A leader of the national struggle, Sukarno (born Kusno Sosrodihardjo) served as constitutional president from 1949 until the late 1960s. During this period, Sukarno declared martial law to quell anti-government rebellions and ensure centralized state control based in Jakarta. In 1959, he imposed a “guided democracy,” through which he acted as a quasi-dictator under the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Sukarno maintained power by balancing the dueling forces of the military and the PKI, but it was a strategy that ultimately led to his being overthrown in 1965. The PKI began a campaign that year to arm its supporters amidst resistance from the military. On the night of September 30, 1965, a military group calling themselves the “30 September Movement” abducted and killed six senior army generals, supposedly to stop an alleged CIA-backed takeover. The military blamed the PKI for the killings and encouraged citizens to denounce the party and push it out of the government. The anti-communist movement by the army undertook a violent anti-communist purge across much of the country. It was estimated that between 500,000 and one million people were killed, effectively destroying the PKI and suppressing anyone with leftist sympathies. Although President Sukarno attempted to restore order, public confidence dropped and he was ultimately forced to transfer power to General Suharto, who was credited with restoring order. The Provisional People’s Consultative Assembly (MPRS) named General Suharto as acting president in March 1967. He was formally appointed president in March 1968.
Suharto’s “New Order”
Assuming political power in an environment of chaos, President Suharto moved quickly to reestablish order, officially banning the PKI and removing leftists and Sukarno-supporters from the army and civil service. In 1973, Suharto clamped down on dissent by outlawing independent political parties, labor unions, and other associations while controlling media outlets through crony ownership, bribery, or threats of violence. The officially sanctioned political parties which remained (the United Development Party (PPP) and the Democratic Party of Indonesia (PDI)) were severely restrained in their ability to organize, mobilize, and campaign while the de facto government party, Golkar, was allowed to function outside the restrictions placed on registered political parties. With a stranglehold on political parties and a rubber-stamp legislature, Suharto would dominate Indonesian politics until 1999.
In addition to extending his control over Indonesian politics, Suharto exercised his military might over Indonesia’s eastern neighbor, by invading the Portuguese colony of East Timor. Indonesian armed forces were ruthless in their attack - it is estimated that 60,000 people were killed in the first two months of the invasion. With the initial military operation complete, a puppet legislature was installed and forced to vote for East Timor’s integration with Indonesia in early 1976. Indonesian military would brutally control East Timor until 2001, despite international protests on both legal and humanitarian grounds.
These displays of both political and military strength were not without their costs. During his presidency, Suharto was frequently forced to balance widespread discontent over rising prices, foreign capital dominating important sectors of the economy, and military influence in government. Thanks in part to a dramatic rise in oil prices in the early 1970s, he was able to establish a centralized system of crony capitalism and patronage, and therefore maintain the crucial political balance. Despite this balance, occasional protests and riots did break out, such as those which preceded his election to a third term in 1978.
In 1984, government legislation was introduced requiring all political, social, and religious organizations to adopt the Pancasila state philosophy, which consists of five central tenets: belief in a one God, humanitarianism, national unity, consensus democracy, and social justice. The initiative encountered strong opposition and security forces were needed to suppress anti-government rioting in Jakarta. However, by mid-1985, all political groupings accepted Pancasila and a decade of relative stability and economic prosperity ensued. On March 10, 1993, President Suharto was elected to a sixth five-year term.
Indonesia was among the hardest hit in the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Boasting impressive growth rates for the better part of the previous decade, few could have predicted that in just one year, the Indonesian rupiah would lose nearly 80% of its value. Amidst the crisis, the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) elected President Suharto to a seventh term on March 10, 1998, but protests and sporadic rioting over rising food and fuel prices and unemployment accelerated calls for him to step down. Peaceful demonstrations on university campuses began demanding far-reaching reformasi—the Indonesian term for political reform that was to become a rallying cry of what is now called the Indonesian Revolution of 1998. Shortly after Suharto’s reelection, the newly appointed army chief-of-staff, General Wiranto, conveyed a message from a powerful group of army officers requesting the President’s resignation. In light of national unrest and lethal rioting, Suharto stepped down on May 21, 1998, and Vice President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie took the oath of office as President.
President Habibie & Reformasi
President Habibie presented a new Kabinet Reformasi, pledging “total reformation of the political, economic, and legal systems.” Beginning his work in earnest, Habibie immediately began to release political prisoners, lifted bans on labor unions and political parties, and eased restrictions on the media. These initial reforms were perceived as a threat to the entrenched interests of the TNI, yet the public was eager for broader democratic changes – placing Habibie in a major political crisis in the early months of his presidency. On November 13, 1998, a crowd of 20,000 protesters faced off with TNI troops outside the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) in a bloody incident that would come to be known as “Black Friday.” On December 3, 1998, the government announced that elections for the People’s Representation Council (DPR) would be held on June 7, 1999, with a reconstituted MPR to convene later in the year to elect a new president. With elections approaching in six months, new start-up political parties scrambled to organize support.
In addition to political reforms, Habibie oversaw a number of important military and security reforms. In January of 1999, he announced a referendum on the independence of East Timor – a territory Indonesia had spent considerable time, money, lives, and political capital attempting to control. A few months later, in April 1999, the police force was formally separated from the military; the upper house of the legislature (MPR) repealed the 1963 Subversion Law, which, under Sukarno and Suharto, had been invoked to imprison dissidents; and the lower house of the legislature (DPR) passed a law on regional autonomy designed to permit the provinces greater control over their economic and political affairs.
These reforms were partly driven by the reformasi movement, but larger macroeconomic reforms were made conditions for critical assistance through the financial crisis. Monopolies were broken up, defunct banks were closed, and more adequate political controls were put in place under the guidance of the IMF. More importantly, this period marked a shift away from the system of patronage and cronyism that had prevailed under Suharto for nearly 40 years.
However, these reforms were not popular with all segments of society. The Indonesian military (TNI) had long been a powerful political player in Indonesia since the country’s independence. Habibie’s reformasi was seen as going too far in relaxing political control of the public and in constraining their own. On the other hand, as the Asian financial crisis deepened, the unemployment rate soared and wide-spread poverty increased.
Forty-eight parties contested the June 1999 DPR election. Initial expectations were that Sukarno’s daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri, would claim the presidency when the MPR convened. However, the weakness of her campaign and coalition-building efforts, combined with objections from many of the country's new Islamic parties to the prospect of female political leadership, ultimately lead to her disappointment. In an important political miscalculation, Habibie overestimated his military support and left politics under somewhat embarrassing circumstances. In a surprising move, Abdurrahman Wahid (also known as “Gus Dur”) managed to pull together a broad coalition of Islamic and secular parties, including the former government party, Golkar, securing his election on October 20, 1999. The following day, Wahid further extended his coalition by backing the election of Megawati as vice president, thereby quelling a spate of rioting by her disappointed supporters.
The new “Cabinet of National Unity” announced by President Wahid on October 26, 1999, constituted an ethnic, religious, and regional cross-section, with all of the leading parties represented. One of the more notable appointments was a civilian as minister of defense, with General Wiranto being moved to the position of coordinating minister for politics and security.
President Wahid assumed his presidency in fragile health, having suffered two major strokes in prior years. Within months of taking office, he found his patched-together coalition government both inexperienced and inefficient. Wahid himself began drawing criticism for off-the-cuff comments and allegedly erratic decision making, as well as for the absence of effective initiatives for resolving separatist and sectarian conflicts. Most importantly, his broad coalition encompassed a number of entrenched interests against which he would be fighting an uphill battle for reform.
End of the Wahid Presidency
On February 1, 2001, the DPR formally censured Wahid, 393–4, for his handling of a $2 million donation from the Sultan of Brunei and for an effort by an associate to scam millions from the State Logistics Agency (Bulog). The DPR, dissatisfied with Wahid’s response, approved a second censure motion on April 30, and on May 30 voted 365–4 to convene the MPR to consider impeachment. Cabinet changes in June failed to reduce the momentum against Wahid, even though the attorney general had cleared him of any involvement in what came to be known as “Brunei-gate” and “Bulog-gate.” In July, Wahid issued a decree dissolving the DPR, but the Supreme Court ruled the move illegal; the MPR responded by convening earlier than planned. On July 23, it voted 591–0 to remove Wahid, and quickly elected Megawati as his successor. The Megawati cabinet, which took the oath of office on August 10, was equally divided between representatives of supportive political parties and nonaffiliated technical experts.
Though the presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid was fraught with challenge and controversy, he remains highly regarded for his reform efforts. Memorial services following his death on December 30, 2009 recognized his legacy of promoting broad political coalitions between secular and Islamic parties, and his efforts to promote tolerance and pluralism within Indonesia.
At balloting on April 5, 2004, Indonesian voters elected the 550 members of a restructured DPR; the new Regional Representatives Council (DPD), which had been established as an upper house of the MPR by a 2002 constitutional amendment; and local legislators—a total of more than 15,200 offices contested by nearly 450,000 candidates. As had been predicted by opinion polls, the Golkar party headed by Wiranto won a plurality of 127 seats in the DPR, followed by Megawati's PDI-P with 109. Somewhat unexpectedly, 58 seats were won by the recently organized Democratic Party (DP), headed by Megawati's former coordinating minister for political and security affairs, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
President Megawati was defeated in Indonesia's first direct presidential election. At first-round voting on July 5, 2004, she finished second to Yudhoyono, who at the September 24 runoff took 60.9 percent of the vote against the incumbent's 39.1 percent. The other first-round contenders were Golkar's Wiranto (despite his indictment in connection with the abuses that followed East Timor's independence referendum), the PAN's Amien Rais, and the PPP's Hamzah Haz. Inaugurated on October 20, President Yudhoyono formed a new “United Indonesia Cabinet” (Kabinet Indonesia Bersatu) that included representatives of his own DP, Golkar, the PKB, the PPP, the recently organized Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), the PAN, and the Crescent Star Party (PBB).
2009 Parliamentary and Presidential Elections
Before 2004, the country’s president was elected by the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR). During his rule, Suharto used the MPR, which he controlled, to 'elect' him every five years to give his dictatorship the air of legitimacy. Under the new system, each party nominates a presidential and vice-presidential candidate, who will then be elected directly by the people.
In 2009, the country held both presidential and parliamentary elections. The legislative elections were held on 9 April and the presidential election on 8 July. The legislative branch consists of 132 seats in the Regional Representative Council and 560 seats in the People’s Representative Council. These two bodies make up the People’s Consultative Assembly. Members of both houses of the parliament and the President serve for five-year terms.
The three main candidates for president were incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, and Jusuf Kalla, President Yudhoyono’s vice president. To avoid a run-off vote, one candidate was required to secure over 60 percent of the vote; if no candidate received sufficient votes, the run-off was scheduled for September 8. However, President Yudhoyono received 60.80 percent, thereby winning the election in the first round. Megawati Sukarnoputri had 26.79 percent and Jusuf Kalla had 12.41 percent. The successful 2009 election process, which was overwhelmingly deemed free and fair by the international community, helped to deepen and consolidate the country’s democracy.
Coutsoukis, Photius (2004) “Indonesia People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR)” available online at:
Crouch, Harold (1973) “Another Look at the Indonesian ‘Coup’” Indonesia, Volume 15 (April 1973), 1--20. available online at:
Kingsbury, Damien (2005) South-East Asia: A Political Profile. Oxford University Press.
U.S. Department of State (2010) Background Note: Indonesia available online at: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2748.htm
*The World Movement for Democracy would like to thank Justin Snyder, Katherine Bannor and Mira Maruto for their contributions to this brief history.
Ethnic groups: Javanese (40.6%), Sudanese (15%), Madurese (3.3%), Minangkabau (2.7%), Betawi (2.4%), Bugis (2.4%), Banjar (1.7%), and other (29.9%)
Religions: Muslim (86.1%), Protestant (5.7%), Roman Catholic (3%), Hindu (1.8%), and other (3.4%)
Languages: Bahasa-Indonesian, English, Dutch, and several local dialects, including Javanese
System of Government: Republic
Independence Day: 17 August 1945
Political Parties: Crescent Moon and Star Party (PBB), Democratic Party (PD), Functional Groups Party (Golkar), Indonesia Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), National Awakening Party (PKB), National Mandate Party (PAN), Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), and United Development Party (PPPi)
Flag: two equal horizontal bands of red (top) and white (bottom)
More Information about Indonesia
BBC’s country profile of Indonesia
CIA World Factbook for demographic statistics
Indonesia’s official tourism site
Lonely Planet’s site on Indonesia
One World’s country guide to Indonesia
The Political Handbook of the World Online Edition’s overview of the political landscape of Indonesia