This study explains the military withdrawal from politics in the East Java province of Indonesia in post-Suharto era. Its purpose is to understand how the transition from an authoritarian to a democratic regime occurred at the local level in the first five-year period, 1998-2003. To do so, it analyses the process and the impact of the withdrawal on local military, on local politics, on the newly democratic content of local civil-military relations, and on the form and quality of the establishing of the new democracy.
To understand the process, the situation preceding the withdrawal and the implementation of the withdrawal policy in East Java were analysed. It was found that two compelling situations – the economic disaster and the collapse of law and order de-legitimized and badly demoralized the military in this major province. The absence of significant resistance from the local military to the broad, dramatic withdrawal policy that followed should be understood against this background.
That is, although it systematically dismantled the military territorial units’ political networks within the territorial structures, within local government bureaucracies and parliament, the military’s decision to withdraw from politics afterward was understood by the local military personnel as politically realistic, to save the country and the military’s image from worsening much further and thus to limit the loss of the military’s political power. This situation depicts a pattern of how local military-society relations drove a change process. The interplay between the public (external) pressures to withdraw, and the (internal) willingness or at least acceptance by the military to respond positively propelled the process.
The impact of the withdrawal was very significant. Systemically, the previous integrated system of military, civilian bureaucratic, and parliamentary political relations at the local level was over, this re-established stricter boundaries between the military and the civilian political institutions and cut off the military’s direct political links. In addition, the process of democratization made some initial gains from the political decentralization away from tight central control. The power of local politics and the local branches of political parties have become more independent and much less influenced by the activities and effectiveness of the military hierarchy, down to the village levels. The military’s control over local politics (and security) declined dramatically, mainly because of the elimination of the political networks both horizontally (locally) and vertically (nationally) and the loss of financial resources that previously had streamed through these networks that used to sustain its political domination. It is quite encouraging that there is no evidence about any systematic attempt by the military to revive this declined influence, and it is not likely possible in the foreseeable future.
There are also serious challenges to the democratic transition and consolidation, however. There were some problems about how to minimize the potential for political involvement, through which is considered to be defence and security management; about how to plan and organ the future funding which will be adequate to provide for a modern, professional military posture; about bringing a good governance into the military; and about transforming the mentality and attitudes of military personnel toward an apolitical, professional military culture.
Clearly, dismantling the territorial units’ political networks was essential but not enough to make the military more professional. On the civilian side, there was a concern about improving the institutionalization of political parties, so that the political parties are able to accommodate a new trend in political participation which slightly increased, but was more sectarian and violent in its forms. So, the challenge for the civilian is how to establish an effective democratic civilian politics without the involvement of the military.
Despite this limited success – that it has only led and opened the ways to but had not yet been able to establish military professionalism and strong and effective democracy – it should be seen optimistically as a crucial impetus and opportunity to continue the process and to achieve those two preconditions essential to sustain a lasting civilian control over the military.