Indonesia's top legislative body has introduced constitutional changes that have been hailed by some as a step toward enhanced democracy. But despite the changes, critics said the country's army will still wield strong political power. Indonesia's legislators have agreed to abolish the 38 parliamentary seats now reserved for members of the army and the police. This means that by 2004, the military will lose the formal and visible role that it has traditionally played in Indonesian politics.
Under the current system, which dates back to the late 1950s, Indonesia has a 500-member Parliament which writes the country's laws. Most of its members are elected, but 38 seats are reserved for the military. There is also a 700-member upper body, called the People's Consultative Assembly or MPR, which meets less often and handles constitutional questions and large policy issues. The MPR includes all 500 parliament members plus 200 other appointed representatives drawn from local communities and interest groups.
At its recent two-week session, the MPR decided to abolish the seats set aside for the military as well as all appointed representatives. The assembly directed the lower house, the parliament to determine the new make-up of the two bodies and to draft the necessary implementing legislation.
Some observers call these reforms the most significant political changes in Indonesia in four decades. Kelley Currie, who watches political developments in Asia, doesn't go that far, but she says the reforms are an important step forward in Indonesia's democratic evolution.
"It's an incremental reform which is typical of the way that things are done in, not only Indonesia, but a lot of countries that are going through these transitions where they're trying to find their way. These are positive steps certainly. They all are good things that have needed to happen and are reforms that have been on the table since 1998 and actually before, but are just now really getting moving," Mr. Currie said.
Ms. Currie is the deputy director of the Asia Division of the Washington-based International Republican Institute. The group's Jakarta office advises political parties and other institutions involved Indonesia's political process.
Another specialist on Indonesian politics, Daniel Lev, said the changes approved by the assembly, the MPR, are not especially significant. In particular, he says removing the military from the parliament will not make much difference.
"There are some people who think this is very significant, that it somehow means that the army has agreed to withdraw from politics. And of course, it hasn't. Withdrawing from parliament and the MPR actually relieves the military in some respects of the criticism that it often gets there. It also is relieved of the burden, in effect, of being publicly engaged in these political bodies. But the fact of the matter is the army retains its influence over the president, over the political system. The army is still the most powerful institution, and the best organized institution in the country," Mr. Lev said.
Mr. Lev is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Washington. He said the army has the ear of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, and army officers will find it easier to consult with her in private than to make their views known publicly through the legislature. Kelley Currie agrees the Indonesian military will continue to play a role in politics. But she says removing the army's reserved seats from the parliament is symbolically important. And she hopes that over time the military's role in politics will diminish.
"I think most people hope that as the Indonesian military professionalizes and as the civilian leadership of the country becomes more confident in their leadership of the country, that structures for this influence will become more transparent, as they are here in the United States, where you have the Joint Chiefs of Staff and you have policy bodies that have a strong degree of military influence, but it's more transparent than it is certainly in Indonesia right now," Ms. Currie said.
Ms. Currie said those kinds of institutions evolve over time, not in a year or even five years.
The People's Consultative Assembly also decided that Indonesia's constitution should be changed to provide for direct presidential elections. Now, the assembly chooses the nation's president and vice president.
Professor Lev said the question debated by the assembly should not have been whether the president should be chosen by direct or indirect elections. Instead, the professor said, the assembly should have considered changing from a presidential system to a parliamentary one.
"In Indonesian experience, since 1959, strong presidents have been disastrous for the country, just disastrous. So, therefore, why continue it? Why not return to the form at least of the most successful political system Indonesia has yet had. That is the parliamentary system with a prime minister and a constitutional president, one who's symbolically important but doesn't do much," Mr. Lev said.
Professor Lev said a parliamentary system would provide more pressure for the political parties to work toward compromise and keep better control over the government.
Kelley Currie disagrees, saying a parliamentary democracy can be a very unstable form of government, especially for new democracies. She said Indonesia's current system includes a fixed term of office for the president, which provides more stability.
Ms. Currie said one reform the assembly did not consider, but should have, would be to the way political parties put forward parliamentary candidates. Currently, the parties make nationwide lists of candidates, with voters from the whole country voting on the same slate of candidates. Ms. Currie said this leads to centralized decision making in the parties, does not promote grass roots party development, and means that elite parliamentarians are out of touch with ordinary Indonesians especially in outlying villages.