SINGAPORE — It has been common in recent years to praise Indonesia as Southeast Asia’s primary democratic success story. Vital achievements include a successful campaign against Islamist terrorism and the end to three decades of futile military oppression of Aceh province.

Indonesia’s swift transition to democracy and its proud standing as the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy have tended to cloud deeply rooted deficiencies in the country’s political culture. In the course of the last few years, a more balanced and sober perspective on the quality of Indonesian democracy has taken over.

Elections in post-Suharto Indonesia have produced complex compositions of Parliament with numerous parties represented. Indonesian Cabinets traditionally tended to embrace all major streams and allocated posts roughly in accordance with electoral shares. Parties were extremely wary of the dangers of being excluded from lucrative Cabinet positions because they gave access to much needed patronage funds. Cadres traditionally expected party elites to use their powerful positions to collect funds and distribute them.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s coalition faces formal opposition from the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDIP) and the small Hanura and Gerindra parties. The problem for the president is that two vital parties in his coalition — the Golkar Party and the Islamist Justice Prosperity Party (PKS) — increasingly act like quasi-oppositional parties. In October 2009, Yudhoyono was re-elected with 62 percent of the votes, but his Democrats’ Party holds only 26 percent of the legislature. So, despite a large popular mandate for himself, the president is to a great extent dependent on the good will and loyalty of his coalition partners.

The latest hubbub in Yudhoyono’s coalition of parties was triggered by the decision of Golkar and PKS to support PDIP and Hanura in their call for the formation of a commission to investigate possible corruption in the tax office where officials allegedly gave out favors to the well-heeled and powerful.

In a vote in Parliament, the Democrats’ Party and the rest of the coalition were barely able to thwart the proposal from succeeding (266 vs. 264 votes). Some legislators think that a successful proposal could have opened doors to an impeachment of the president.

The quarrel is occurring both at the party and the personal level: It is a sign of enduring rifts within Yudhoyono’s coalition as well as the ongoing rivalry between the president and business magnate Aburizal Bakrie.

Last year Yudhoyono, it is believed, indicated to Bakrie that he would launch an investigation of the latter’s corporate affairs over tax irregularities. When Bakrie loyalists in Golkar, however, started to protest publicly about what they saw as intimidating threats against their boss, the president opted for harmony in his coalition. He even appointed Bakrie as head of a newly formed secretariat for the coalition of parties. This apparently did not have the desired effect of stabilizing the coalition and the rivalry between the two men continues (Bakrie is a strong contender for Golkar’s presidency in 2014).

As for PKS and Golkar, the majority of legislators appear wanting to remain partners of Yudhoyono’s coalition despite the frequent display of dissent. Of the two parties, PKS is the more divided over which position to take. Last week secretary general Anis Matta said PKS should go into opposition whereas former party chairman and minister in the president’s current Cabinet, Tifatul Sembiring, ruled this out.

The “tax inquiry” squabble follows a distinctly static 2010, which was dominated by investigations into the bailout of the faltering Bank Century. The Bank Century scandal would leave its mark on much of the year, famously leading to the resignation of Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati and severely disrupting the government’s work. Several other messy and lengthy tax evasion and corruption cases were to follow; 2010, indeed, was almost “lost” to the Bank Century saga, which wasn’t helped by Yudhoyono’s timid leadership.

In previous years, the president has favored a leadership style that is grounded in maintaining harmony in his coalition and securing the support of main constituencies. To this end, he eventually fell short of securing the position of one of his chief reformers (Sri Mulyani). Last year was also remarkable for carrying a shaky coalition and a volatile Cabinet over into 2011.

The latest crisis early this year could be a sign that 2011 will pick up the thread left from 2010, which in itself was somewhat of a prolongation of 2009 — a static transitional period that increasingly puts into perspective earlier raptures about the successes of Indonesian democracy.

Bernhard Platzdasch is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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