In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Politics of Indonesia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Textbooks
  • References
  • Journals
  • Websites
  • Nationalism and Revolution
  • Decolonization
  • Anti-Communist, State Violence
  • Military Authoritarianism
  • Separatism
  • Ethnic Violence
  • Democracy, Parties, and Elections
  • Political Economy
  • Religion and Politics
  • Decentralization and Local Politics
  • Social Movements and Civil Society
  • Women and Politics
  • Culture and Politics

Political Science Politics of Indonesia
Jamie S. Davidson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0296


Indonesia is often referred to as the world’s largest Muslim democracy. This characterization testifies to the country’s large population (at approximately 270 million, it is the world’s fourth most populous) and to the vast majority (approximately 87 percent) professing the Islamic faith. But Indonesia is also a country of immense ethno-linguistic heterogeneity, even among its dominant Muslim demographic. While this complex social fabric is reflected in the state motto of “Unity in Diversity,” it also has contributed to contentious processes of nation-building over decades wherein different forms of collective violence have figured prominently. Dutch traders arrived in the archipelago in the 16th century, but not until the mid-19th century did a colonial administration gain coherence on the main island of Java. This bureaucracy made uneven headway in the more sparsely populated outer islands. Colonialization spurred an inclusive anticolonial nationalist movement, despite the existence and persistence of deep factions along religious, ethnic, and ideological lines. The movement’s leaders proclaimed independence following Japan’s surrender in World War II, although it took a bloody revolutionary war, coupled with intense negotiations, for the country’s sovereignty to be formally recognized in 1949. Less than two decades of shaky parliamentary democracy followed, but democracy was replaced by authoritarianism, first gradually by President Sukarno (or Soekarno), and then more violently by General Suharto (or Soeharto), who gained power via an anti-Communist massacre in 1965 and 1966. The Cold War strongman also dedicated his New Order regime to developing the country economically, despite his government’s legendary corruption. Before the authoritarian Suharto was forced to resign following three decades in power in 1998, amid the Asian Financial Crisis, the World Bank had classified Indonesia as a lower-middle-income country. Today, Indonesia is a procedural democracy with a mixed presidential and parliamentary system, although the president has tended to outmuscle the legislature. Indonesiaand regularly holds competitive national and local elections, leading the country to be hailed as a successful case of a stable Muslim democracy. But mounting and destabilizing Islamism has led scholars of late to reexamine how consolidated Indonesia’s democracy actually is. State institutions are weak, for example, and corrupt political parties have enabled worrisome polarization. Debates on improving the country’s democratic deficits, such as alleviating poverty more swiftly and institutionalizing the rule of law, consume scholars and observers alike, as do discussions on protecting public civility and minority rights (even for key sectors of Muslims) amid rising religious nationalism.

General Overviews and Textbooks

Indonesia has been the subject of a good deal of historical overviews. Understandably, early histories were penned (although not wholly) by Dutch scholars; over time, some switched to writing in English, especially following Indonesia’s independence. Ricklefs 2008, of which four editions have been published, remains unrivaled. Hill 2000 surveys the country’s economic history and development trajectories, Kersten 2017 looks at the history of Islam in the archipelago, and Abdullah 2009 in a sense brings Ricklefs’s political overview through the transition to democracy precipitated by the fall of Suharto’s New Order regime in 1998. Less a historical overview, Hefner 2018 covers a broad range of topics and scholarly debates over pressing challenges, from the slowing of institutional reforms to the rise of pernicious identity politics.

  • Abdullah, Taufik. Indonesia: Towards Democracy. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asia Studies Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1355/9789812305619

    An optimistic, moderately nationalist tome on the set of ideas and ideals that informed the early phase of Indonesia’s nation-building, in which democracy figured prominently. It examines how well the country’s leadership through each era has upheld these beliefs.

  • Hefner, Robert, ed. Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Indonesia. London: Routledge, 2018.

    Introductory, thorough edited volume of thirty-three chapters written by leading scholars and divided into six sections: Culture, Politics, Political Economy, Religion, Gender, and Globalization.

  • Hill, Hal. The Indonesian Economy. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511818189

    Extensive economic history that especially contrasts the economic stagnation of the 1960s with the New Order’s strong record on economic growth that was achieved with equity for much of its tenure. Available in Indonesian.

  • Kersten, Carool. A History of Islam in Indonesia: Unity in Diversity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748681839.001.0001

    Concise yet broad overview of how Islam arrived in the archipelago and interacted with its peoples over centuries until the present; part of the new historiography seeking to elevate the role Islam played in nation-building.

  • Ricklefs, Merle C. A History of Modern Indonesia since c. 1200. 4th ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    Standard textbook, slightly favoring the colonial historiographical standpoint of Indonesia as a centuries-old entity against that of the modernist viewpoint that conceives of it as emerging from the political, economic, social, and cultural changes wrought by Dutch colonialism. Originally published in 1981, the fourth edition covers the 1998 transition to democracy. Available in Indonesian.

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