Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia

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Horse-trading and Coalition-Building in the 1950s

By Kevin W. Fogg, Aug 8 2018 11:40AM

As everyone interested in Indonesian politics (including me) waits on pins and needles for the announcement of presidential running-mates and the determination of whether there will be a third national ticket in the 2019 elections (see my previous post on vice-presidents here), I was thinking about the history of horse-trading to build coalitions in Indonesia. For years, there was not much of this involved in the presidency. Sukarno was chosen as president by parliamentary acclamation, and he theoretically stood above parties. Although Suharto had an unambiguous affiliation to Golkar—which was technically not billed as a party but as a “non-party vehicle”—by the 1992 round of national elections, it was PPP, not Golkar, that formally put him up for president in the national parliament. It was not until 1999, or maybe even 2004 or 2009, that Indonesia saw a president scramble to win parties over through choice patronage positions, as we are seeing in the current vice-presidential candidate scrum.


The longer historical precedent for this, I would say, was the assembling of Prime Ministerial cabinets in the 1950s. These heads of government did not have the chance to run against each other in the popular vote, but they did have to carefully weigh how to give out positions (the choicest ministries were Defense, Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs, and Information, although Muslim groups were always set on running the Ministry of Religion) so as to win enough parliamentary votes to hold a mandate. That strikes me as rather similar to the two leading candidates this week, Jokowi and Prabowo, trying to hold together a coalition big enough to win them the presidency (both for passing the high threshold of parliamentary seats to field a ticket, as set by the General Election Commission, and for getting the popular vote in the presidential election next year).


In the 1950s, as today, the Islamic parties were often split, inside and outside the cabinet. After PSII broke away from Masjumi in 1947 to join the first cabinet of Amir Sjarifuddin, and even more so after NU split from Masjumi in 1952 (the immediate trigger was also a cabinet seat, although there were bountiful structural issues, too), it was almost impossible to keep all the Islamic parties on the same side. The 1950s also had a number of coalitions that came down to the last minute. Sometimes the president’s designated formateurs were unable to assemble a cabinet within the period of their mandate, and had to go into a second attempt with a new team of formateurs. In the case of Natsir in 1950, he was determined to assemble his cabinet on time, but that meant leaving out PNI which was playing hardball to win big posts, driving a wedge in between two parties that had by-and-large gotten along well during the Revolution.


Are there still similarities of political culture between the 1950s cabinet negotiations and this week’s vice-presidential horse-trading? It’s hard to say. In both instances, most of the work is happening behind closed doors, so most observers have little idea of how the conversations or considerations go in the room where it happens. The leaks that come out suggest that key Islamic parties are deferring to their senior clerics to determine alignment, which would echo NU in the 1950s. It is unclear how much other parties have faith in their elected party leaders and are willing to defer to the negotiations of that one person; that was consistently a problem for parties in the 1950s. The biggest differences in political culture are probably the lack of an outside head of state to urge different players to the table, as Sukarno and Hatta were able to do in the 1950s and the presence of a theoretically-neutral bureaucracy (the General Election Commission) to regulate the process. It remains unclear whether either feature functioned to the benefit or detriment of a smooth selection for the next government.

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The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent any institutions or other organization with which I am affiliated.  They are mine and mine alone, and should not be copied or reprinted (beyond fair use) without my written permission.  My hope is that these entries will help to further discussion about Southeast Asia, Islamic history, academia in a time of technological change, and other subjects worthy of attention.

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The image above comes from a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat, probably copied in West Sumatra in the first half of the twentieth century and now in the collection of Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence.