Over the past 20 years, Indonesia — the world’s fourth most-populous country and the largest Muslim-majority nation — has evolved into a democracy based on tolerance and a moderate interpretation of Islam, and has emerged as one of Asia's fastest-growing economies. This essay is part of a series on “Indonesia and the Middle East: Exploring Connections,” which examines the nature, scope, and implications of Indonesia's ties with the MENA region. See more ...


On April 17, 2019 Indonesia will hold its first ever simultaneous legislative and presidential elections, marking another important milestone in its Reformasi journey started over two decades ago to become a fully democratic country.  As the world’s largest archipelagic state of over 17,000 islands with a highly heterogeneous population comprising more than 700 ethnic groups, Indonesia has faced numerous sociopolitical challenges and conflicts since it declared independence on August 17, 1945. Indonesia is also the world’s largest Muslim majority country, with around 87% of its 260 million population adhering to Islam, while at the same time home to people belonging to other faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. 

Reaching a national consensus about the place of religions, specifically Islam, in the political system was one of the intractable problems that Indonesia faced in the first two decades of its independence, and it has continued to be a contentious issue to the present day.  Indonesia’s first experiment with liberal democracy in the 1950s ended in failure, ushering four decades of authoritarian rule under Sukarno’s Guided Democracy (1959-1965) and Suharto’s New Order government (1966-1998), among others over disagreements about the relations of Islam and the State.[1] Despite the many challenges that it has faced and the flaws in its implementation, however, Indonesia’s current democratic polity has proven to be quite resilient and hopefully more sustainable than the first one. 

One of the most important reasons for Indonesia’s relative success is undoubtedly the existence of Pancasila, the pluralist State ideology. Equally important is the presence and role of major Islamic social and political groups, including the large Islamic mass organizations and Islamist political parties, that have supported the development of a truly inclusive, pluralistic and participatory democracy in Indonesia based on Pancasila.

Indonesia’s Reformasi and Transition to Democracy

It has been over two decades since President Suharto resigned on May 21, 1998 from the position that he had held for 32 years, amidst large-scale demonstrations triggered by the Asian Financial Crisis. Suharto’s departure ushered in the Reformasi era, which has seen the systematic dismantling of the military-dominated New Order political structure that had been in place since 1966, and Indonesia’s relatively peaceful transition to democracy. After 20 years, Indonesia’s democracy is still a work in progress, with many institutional flaws and shortcomings, including the rise in identity politics and intolerance. Throughout the New Order period political expression and participation were tightly controlled, and to enforce social harmony open discussions about ethnic, religious, racial and class differences were strictly prohibited. Among the side effects of political liberalization is that political competition, particularly around election time, has opened the way for the politicization of religions and the rise in ethnic nationalism, which can threaten Indonesian national unity as well as undermine its plural democracy, as demonstrated in the last gubernatorial election in Jakarta. The popular then incumbent governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of ethnic Chinese descent, who was running for a second term in the 2017 gubernatorial election, was met by large-scale oppositions from conservative Islamist groups. Massive demonstrations by Islamist groups on December 2, 2016 led to Purnama being charged for blasphemy for a careless and distorted remark that he had made; and he was immediately sent to prison for two years. In other parts of the country, such as in West Kalimantan, ethno-nationalism has also reared its ugly head.[2]

Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the presence of violent extremist groups that want to establish an Indonesian Islamic state or a transnational caliphate through acts of terrorism, most of the population of the world’s largest Muslim nation continues to believe that democracy is the best political system for Indonesia. A 2017 report by Pew Research Center showed that 69% of Indonesians are satisfied with the democratic system in place, and 86% are committed to supporting democracy.[3]

Indonesia has continued to consolidate its democracy and experimented with various new ways to make its democratic processes more participatory, such as by electing the president and vice president directly since 2004, as well as more effective and efficient, such as by holding simultaneous elections for the large numbers of regional leaders since 2015. On April 17, 2019 Indonesia will hold its first ever simultaneous legislative and presidential elections, among others intended to strengthen the presidential system along-side the powerful multi-party parliament. Indonesia has come to pride itself as a country where Islam, democracy, modernity, and women’s empowerment walk hand in hand.

In contrast, the optimism accompanying the so-called “Arab Spring,” which started with a single protest in Tunisia in December 2010 and quickly spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, has mostly disappeared. The Arab Spring movement, which manifested in large-scale protests against the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain, were initially expected to usher in peaceful transitions to democracy, similar to what had happened in Indonesia in 1998 and the Philippines in 1986. Instead of a new wave of democratization, however, the “people-power” movements in Libya, Yemen, and Syria have led to new rounds of repression, external intervention, and civil war, while in Bahrain to an even tighter political control by the ruling regime. In Egypt, a brief experiment with democracy ended when a counter-revolution was carried out by the military in alliance with secular forces that initially supported political reform, after the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party that swept to power through popular votes carried out exclusionary politics to implement the sharia as the basis of the State. It is only in Tunisia that the protest movement has succeeded in transforming the political system from authoritarianism to a pluralistic democracy.

The experience of each country is clearly unique and cannot easily be replicated by another due to the differences in historical, cultural and political forces at play. Indonesia’s successful transition to democracy can be credited to many factors, including President Suharto’s willingness to step down from power peacefully, the military’s decision to support the democratization process, the willingness of the opposition groups to accept Vice President Habibie resuming the presidency in accordance with the Constitution, the commitment of the Habibie transitional government to accelerate the political reform, and the unrelenting pressure from civil society. Looking at the difficulties encountered by many Muslim-majority countries in trying to develop democratic governance, however, where proponents of secularism and Islamism are often so bitterly divided that the military appears as a better alternative, Indonesia’s relative success undoubtedly owed a great deal to the national consensus on fundamental issues. Despite major differences between the various political forces and heated debates about the future direction that Indonesia should take during the critical transition period after the fall of President Suharto, there were general agreements about the importance of upholding Pancasila as the state ideology , and the need to transform the political system from authoritarianism to truly participatory, representative and accountable democracy. Major Islamic mass organizations, and Islamic political parties that have mushroomed since the collapse of the New Order, have been important stakeholders and players in this political transformation.

Throughout the military-dominated New Order period the political space was tightly controlled, with political Islam prohibited, communism banned, while every social and political organization must adhere to a single ideology, Pancasila, known as “mono-loyalty.” The collapse of the New Order government unleashed various formerly suppressed political forces that competed for power to shape the new Indonesia. Except for the communist party and communist ideology that continue to be banned, since the onset of Reformasi political parties are free to choose their political platforms, while the number of political parties is not limited to three as it had been in the previous era. Islamic parties can now use Islam as their political platforms; and several Islamist parties have emerged since 1998. At the same time, there have also been a proliferation of secular-nationalist political parties, and parties based on other ideologies such as socialism. The first general elections after the fall of Suharto, held on June 7, 1999, saw 48 political parties contending for seats at the different levels of legislative bodies. Over the years, attempts have been made to reduce the number of political parties contesting elections through more stringent criteria and the imposition of parliamentary threshold.

Pancasila as the Unifying Ideological Foundation of Indonesia

Despite the proliferation of political parties with different ideological orientations and priorities since the onset of Reformasi, all of them agreed that Pancasila as the pluralist foundation of the state should remain inviolable. In the subsequent constitutional amendments between 1999-2004, when the body of the 1945 Constitution was amended four times to strengthen democratic institutions and human rights guarantees, there was a consensus never to amend the Preamble of the 1945 Constitution, which contains the basic values, goals, form and principles of the Indonesian nation-state. This basic national consensus and the existence of Pancasila as the State ideology made it possible for the different political forces to purse their respective goals within a clearly defined national framework, thus preventing sharp divisions about truly fundamental issues that can polarize Indonesia’s highly heterogeneous population. Within the Indonesian political system, no legitimate political forces can openly pursue the goal of establishing an Indonesian Islamic State or of trying to enforce Islam as the official religion of the State. The only exception is the province of Aceh, which enjoys special autonomous status, among others, in being able to apply the sharia within limits in its local regulations; however, Aceh must still adhere to Pancasila, the 1945 Constitution, as well as to higher national laws in matters such as the criminal justice system, gender equality as well as inclusive and participatory governance.

Pancasila or “Five Principles” is not a secular ideology. The five principles are Belief in the One True God, A Just and Civilized Humanity, Indonesian Unity, Representative Democracy and Social Justice. It is mandatory for an Indonesian to profess a religion, but religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed. Pancasila was introduced by Sukarno shortly before Indonesia’s declaration of independence on August 17, 1945 as a compromise formula to bridge the sharp disagreements between those who wanted the newly independent Republic of Indonesia to be based on the Islamic sharia, and those who want a wholly secular state. The five principles of Pancasila are embedded in the Preamble of the 1945 Constitution. At the same time the so-called “Jakarta Charter,” which stated that Muslims must adhere to the Islamic sharia, was dropped from the Preamble as it would privilege Islam over all other religions and was, therefore, considered discriminatory.

Although about 87% of the Indonesian population are Muslims, there are also sizable followers of different streams of Christianity, Hindus, Buddhists and practitioners of local traditional faiths. Indonesia also comprises over 700 different ethnic groups with distinct languages and cultural traditions, making it one of the most heterogeneous countries in the world. Indonesia’s national unity is, therefore, anchored by the motto of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, or Unity in Diversity. With Pancasila as the State ideology the government is responsible for ensuring religious freedom. Official recognition of religions in Indonesia among others take the forms of State support for religious education and celebrating the different major religious holidays as national holidays. Thus, in Indonesia, all major Islamic, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and, lately, Chinese New Year celebrations are declared as public holidays throughout the country.

There have been many challenges to Pancasila throughout modern Indonesian history by groups determined to establish an Islamic state, such as the Darul Islam movement in the 1950s and early 1960s that waged armed struggles in different parts of the country.  Attempts to draft a new constitution to replace the original 1945 Constitution in the 1950s collapsed due to disagreements about the place of Islam in the state system. It was fear of reopening the Pandora’s box of ideological divisions that could again trigger open conflicts that persuaded all the political forces in Indonesia during the early period of political transition to reaffirm their joint commitment to Pancasila as the inviolable foundation of the Indonesian nation-state. The same consideration led to the decision to thoroughly amend the 1945 Constitution, without touching the Preamble, rather than drafting a wholly new constitution, to institutionalize the transformation from authoritarianism to democracy.  

The Role of Major Islamic Groups in Supporting Indonesia’s Pluralism and Democracy

While it is justifiable to level criticisms against some political parties and elites in Indonesia that at times have politicized Islam for political gains, it is also important to recognize that Indonesia’s nation and state building, including its democratization, would not have been possible without the full support of all the major Islamic groups. Here, one cannot over-estimate the positive and constructive role played by the major Islamic mass organizations, particularly Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which are important parts of Indonesia’s vibrant civil society. The modernist Muhammadiyah, established in 1912 and the traditionalist NU, founded in 1926, reportedly with over 30 million and 40 million members respectively, have been at the heart of Indonesia’s national life from the struggle for independence to the transition to democracy[4]. Political elites from different political parties, either Islamist or secular-nationalist parties, are often affiliated with either Muhammadiyah or NU. Both Muhammadiyah and NU since the beginning have supported a moderate form of Islam in Indonesia that respects the country’s rich cultural traditions and diversity. Since the onset of Reformasi leaders of Muhammadiyah and NU have at times become involved in politics by forming or joining political parties, but as organizations, both Muhammadiyah and NU have mostly stayed above the political fray and serve as important unifying forces in Indonesia’s highly competitive democratic processes.[5]

It is not a coincidence that two of the top leaders of the anti-Suharto movement and who played a central role in the early democratic transition process were Amien Rais, then chairman of Muhammadiyah, and Abdurrahman Wahid, then Chairman of NU. Both Amien Rais and Abdurrahman Wahid established political parties and initially worked closely together to ensure Indonesia’s peaceful and constitutional transition to democracy. Amien Rais became the chairman of the then still powerful People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) from 1999-2004 which elected the president and vice president and carried out the four constitutional amendments. Abdurrahman Wahid served as the new democratically elected president in October 1999 till his impeachment in July 2001 due to charges of power abuse.  Notwithstanding some loss of stature that Wahid suffered after his removal from office, and Amien Rais’s loss of credibility as a champion of pluralism in recent years due to his increasingly intolerant view, both Muhammadiyah and NU have kept to their course as the guardians of Indonesia’s religious moderation and supporters of democracy.


Despite the difficult terrain democracy has continued to flourish in Indonesia, though critics have argued that it is still mostly procedural rather than substantive democracy. The role of moderate Islamic mass organisations and political parties have contributed to the resilience of Indonesia’s democracy, amidst contending non-democratic approaches and beliefs.

In recent years, the emergence of new more intolerant Islamic groups has challenged the predominance of the two largest Islamic mass organizations, Muhammadiyah and NU, as the primary referent points of Muslims in Indonesia. Both Muhammadiyah and NU were sidelined during the mass demonstrations in Jakarta organized by hard-lined Islamist groups determined to prevent the non-Muslim Basuki Tjahaja Purnama from winning the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. There are also radical Islamist groups, many affiliated with transnational extremist movements such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), that have used terrorism to advance their ideological cause to establish a caliphate in Indonesia. However, the mainstream political and social forces, including Islamic political parties and mass organizations, have also rallied and called for strengthening the national commitment to Pancasila, the 1945 Constitution, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika and the Unitary Republic of Indonesia — the four pillars of the Indonesian nation-state. Muhammadiyah and NU, in particular, have again been called upon to enhance their role in the fight against religious intolerance, radicalism and extremism as well as promote inter-faith dialogues at home and abroad.


[1] See Herbert Feith, The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978).

[2] “Update on local election results in West Kalimantan and Papua,”  IPAC Report No. 50,  Institute for Policy Analyses of Conflict, August 16, 2018.

[3] Richard Wike, Katie Simmons, Bruce Stokes and Janell Fetterolf, “Globally Broad Support for Representative Democracy. But many also endorse nondemocratic alternatives,” Pew Research Center, October 16, 2017.

[4] For a brief history of Indonesia see M.C. Ricklefs, A History of Modern Indonesia since c.1200. First published in 1981 by the Macmillan Press, the book has been revised several times to bring it up to date. The Fourth Edition was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2008.

[5] See Dua Menyemai Damai: Peran dan Kontribusi Muhammadiyah dan Nahdlatul Ulama dalam Perdamaian dan Demokrasi [Role and Contribution of Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama in Peace and Democracy] (Yogyakarta: UGM Centre for Security and Peace Studies, 2019).

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