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Indonesia: Analysis From Washington -- Autocratic Power Proves Fragile

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 18 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The events in Indonesia highlight the inherent weakness of all governments whose power does not rest on the regular and free expression of the popular will through democratic elections.

But even more than that, these events cast doubt on the validity of three assumptions widely held by dictators, their supporters at home, and the leaders of other countries who want to do business with them.

First, the rapid decay of President Suharto's power base in the wake of economic turmoil and student demonstrations undercuts the notion, put forth by him and accepted by others, that there is a special "Asian path" for economic and political development.

Invoked to justify guided political and economic development, this idea holds that many countries in Asia somehow aren't ready for the tensions and difficulties that democracy inevitably displays. And it claims that everyone will be better off if they accept the guidance of a leader or a leading party that knows what is "best" for the people.

Few people in the streets of Djakarta now appear to be accepting that idea even if Suharto, other authoritarian regimes in the region, and some analysts in democratic regimes continue to advance it.

Second, the events in Indonesia over the last few days show how wrong it is to assume that a regime which enjoys the support of its own security forces and the international community can always withstand popular challenges and thus deserves continuing deference by the population and by the leaders of other countries.

A year ago, Suharto's government certainly looked very strong to many both at home and abroad. The Indonesian economy was providing most of the population there with ever greater income, and thus Suharto had a claim on most, if hardly all, of the Indonesian people as a leader who was "delivering the goods."

But the collapse of the Asian economies over the past 12 months, including that of Indonesia, and the increasingly obvious nepotism and corruption of Suharto's regime as a result suggested to ever more people that the emperor had no clothes and could be challenged.

Indeed, Suharto himself accelerated this process both by the way in which he refused to follow the advice of the International Monetary Fund and by the way in which he orchestrated his own latest "reelection."

The Indonesian president's all too obvious contempt for the IMF and the international community standing behind it cost him a great deal of support in that quarter. And his reelection ritual by a hand-picked parliament was simply too much for many of his countrymen to swallow this time around.

And third, the unfolding tragedy in Indonesia also calls into question that the increasingly widespread belief that economics is always and everywhere more important than politics, that any regime is somehow justified if it produces economic growth and that economic growth by itself will over time generate positive political change.

In the twentieth century, authoritarian leaders repeatedly have justified their power by suggesting that they need that kind of unchallenged power in order to improve the lives of ordinary people, first by promoting stability and then by improving the economy.

And some of them have even argued that they are in the business of putting themselves out of business by creating the conditions that will eventually allow democracy to come to their countries. But in virtually every case -- and Suharto is no exception -- they do not see that happening during their own lifetimes or even the lifetimes of their offspring.

It is bad enough although understandable that authoritarian leaders should hold onto these three notions -- that there is an "Asian path" of development, that apparently strong regimes will remain that way, and that economic development can solve all problems.

It is in some ways much worse that many in democratic countries also hold onto them as well. On the one hand, the attachment of leaders and analysts in democratic countries to such ideas often leads them to support dictators in ways that reduce the moral authority of democracy.

On the other, such mistaken beliefs by those who benefit from living in democracies also frequently mean that the leaders of such countries are surprised by the power of democratic participation to transform even those regimes that appear most fully in control.

And that in turn also means that the leaders of democratic regimes are often unprepared or unable to reach out in a timely fashion to the democratic leaders who are likely to supplant the dictators, a pattern that encourages such rulers but one that will not save either them or their backers.

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