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Pancasila: A Powerful Remnant of Indonesia’s Authoritarian Past

Indonesia recently commemorated the resignation of its longest-serving president, Soeharto, in 1998 and with it, the end of a military dictatorship that ruled the country for thirty-two years. The transition towards inclusive democracy was long and arduous, but unlike its first experiment with democratic governance in 1949, Indonesia has come to truly embrace it this time around. But one remnant of the country’s authoritarian past remains and is becoming a key inhibitor to the maturation of Indonesia’s democratic institutions – Pancasila.

Pancasila is a set of guiding principles, which consists of:

  1. The belief in the one God;

  2. Just and civilised humanity;

  3. The unity of Indonesia;

  4. Guided democracy, led by the wisdom and deliberations among representatives; and

  5. Social justice for the people of Indonesia.

This vague collection of ideals was conceived as a fusion of Soekarno’s three personal core ideologies, namely nationalism, Islamic monotheism and Marxism. It was imposed on the fledgling nation soon after independence to dictate its developmental trajectory according to the aspirations of the founding father, who showed utter disdain for pluralist democracy. Soeharto’s Orde Baru cemented Pancasila’s role as Indonesia’s national ideology – the only one to be tolerated within its constrained political landscape. Political parties, already castrated by their amalgamation into the state approved Golkar, Partai Demokrasi Indonesia and Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (‘PPP’), all had to have Pancasila as their compulsory philosophical and ideological underpinnings. This and the way that the state monitored political activities, rendered them impotent as a communicative mechanism between the people and the country’s political elites.

But for a democratic system to properly function, political parties must be allowed to fulfil their role as a medium between politicians and the people that they represent. Without a genuine ideology to guide its trajectory, a party risks becoming what Gunther and Diamond (2003) term a ‘personalistic’ party – whose sole rationale is to provide a vehicle for its leaders to win office and exercise power. This is what Pancasila has turned Indonesia’s major political parties into. They cannot be distinguished on the basis of their commitment to labour causes and social justice, free enterprise and market liberalisation, green philosophy, rural values, or other causes and ideological positions – because Pancasila invariably serves as their uniform overarching ideology. The distinguishing feature of each political party, then, are the personalities of their leaders i.e. the likes of Megawati Soekarnoputri, Retired General Wiranto and Prabowo Subianto.

A possible exception to this are Islamic parties, who run - at least partly - on the basis of Islamic values. But even then, major Islamic parties like PPP, Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa and Partai Amanat Nasional still pledge loyalty to Pancasila nonetheless.

For democracy to mature in Indonesia, political parties must have the freedom to commit to ideologies that guide their organisations and practices and the first step must be taken by major parties. They need to show courage to leave behind Pancasila in the nation’s political archive and move forward with broad philosophically driven agenda according to the values, attitudes and beliefs of their members. They must see Pancasila for what it really is – empty aspirations used to constrain democratic institutions. Indeed many of its principles never amounted to anything substantial under Orde Baru. The principles of ‘just and civilised humanity’ and ‘social justice for the people of Indonesia’ for instance, were paid no more than lip service by the administration, which carried a horrendous human rights record and made little effort to address social injustices during its time.

Indeed if anything, it was the people that needed to adapt to the principles of Pancasila as a state ideology concocted and enforced by the political elites. For example, the ‘belief in one God’ sits uncomfortably with polytheistic Hinduism and non-theistic Buddhism, two of the six state-sanctioned religions in the country and which were historically dominant in the archipelago. The imposition of Pancasila as a national ideology force Hindu and Buddhist communities in Indonesia to search for religious scriptures and principles that somehow justify that their faiths are indeed not inconsistent with the ‘belief in one God’. This alone is sufficient to rebut oft-cited claims that Pancasila truly represents the values that unite all Indonesians and therefore must necessarily be immutable as a national ideology.

Such argument echoes an assertion by Former President Soekarno that democracy is inconsistent with the values of Indonesia’s citizens. But having emerged from half a century of autocratic rule under Soekarno and Suharto, the people of Indonesia have come to fully embrace democracy. Its youth are active in political debates; its media and social media platforms are providing a voice mechanism to those who were previously disenfranchised; its political leaders are becoming more aware of the importance of responding to their needs. Indeed, President Joko Widodo owes his meteoric rise to the highest office in the land to the political awareness of his grassroots constituents.

Now, it is time for Indonesia’s major political parties to show leadership and courage, and stand up for the values, attitudes and beliefs of its constituents. They need to pull away from relying on personalities and offer philosophically and ideologically driven visions for the people. The first step to doing this would be to leave behind Pancasila and acknowledge it for what it is – a tool, used to restrain the development of pluralist democracy, from which Indonesia must move on. Eighteen years after the fall of Soeharto, the people of Indonesia is ready to take this step forward.

Kevin You is a doctoral candidate and sessional academic at the Griffith Business School, Queensland, Australia.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image Credit: Koch, Eric / Anefo (Wikipedia: Wikimedia Commons)

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