In May 1998 President Suharto resigned, ending three decades in power in Indonesia and what was known as the New Order. As an army general, he had intervened against a coup attempt in 1965 that ended with the sidelining of President Sukarno and months of massacres all over the archipelago as Suharto consolidated his grip.

More than half a million were killed, bludgeoned with hoes and slashed with sickles; rivers and beaches were thick with dumped bodies and blood, even in idyllic Bali. Islamic youth groups, with military support, targeted alleged communists and ethnic Chinese. It was a time of reprisals and score-settling, but during the Suharto era this bloodletting, and the imprisonment of a million suspected communists, were taboo subjects.

The official narrative implicated Beijing and local communists for orchestrating the coup. It also lauded Suharto’s role, bestowing legitimacy on his seizure of power. This political transition was Cold War-style, and it was only decades later that the CIA’s role emerged.

It is a dark corner of Indonesian history that has been belatedly disinterred, but the reckoning remains incomplete and perpetrators have not been brought to justice. Somewhat surprisingly, in contemporary Indonesia there is a certain nostalgia for the New Order era and the strongman leadership of Suharto.

Such palpable longing for what is imagined to be a better time stands as a searing indictment of contemporary Indonesian politics — or maybe nobody now remembers how ruthless and avaricious Suharto was. Time magazine reported he amassed a fortune of at least $15 billion, and he brutally suppressed internal dissent.

Back in the mid-’80s I spoke to survivors of 1984’s Tanjung Priok massacre in the port area of North Jakarta, who said soldiers ran amok. Reflecting widespread grievances, they also showed me a poster of a prominent Chinese tycoon crony of Suharto’s pouring dollars down his throat. At that time one would sometimes see the body bags of alleged criminals killed by the police lying around the capital’s streets.

Timorese I met at the time told me about the horrors on their island, where about 200,000 people — one-third of the population — died in the aftermath of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of the former Portuguese colony. So these were brutal times even if Indonesia was being lauded as the World Bank’s prize student. And though there were elections during the New Order, they were more orchestrated than democratic.

Are things so bad now? Since 1999, Indonesia has enjoyed three smooth transitions of executive power, with free and fair elections. The military has retreated from politics, giving up its bloc of reserved seats in the parliament. The press is free, albeit mostly vapid and sensationalist, and the communal violence that erupted in the wake of Suharto’s departure has mostly subsided. In addition, the economy is going gangbusters, investors are gung-ho and national-branding ads on CNN tout this as Indonesia’s “golden moment.”

But urban areas, most notoriously in Jakarta itself, suffer horrendous traffic jams, periodic flooding, environmental degradation and yawning gaps between the new middle class and those bobbing in the wake of surging growth. Many people wash their clothes and brush their teeth in fetid canals where others defecate.

But in these go-go days, the middle class may reach 20 percent of the nation’s population of 242 million by 2020 — and they are fueling consumption-led growth. They are also aspirational and want better infrastructure, better schools, a cleaner environment and good jobs for their children.

However, the government is not delivering fast enough — and it also suffers from a crisis of legitimacy because graft is endemic. Politicians have a lousy reputation for good reason, preoccupied as they are in accumulating wealth, shirking their duties and denying the scandal de jour.

The incumbent president since 2004, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, known as SBY, is a former general with a deserved reputation for fecklessness who has developed indecision into an art form. He has, though, presided over a consolidation of democracy and a booming economy — and has stomped out the al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist network, Jemaah Islamiyah.

Overall, SBY compares quite favorably with his three erratic post-Suharto predecessors: Jusuf Habibie (1998-99) who as vice-president assumed power when Suharto stepped down; Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2001), who was impeached; and Megawati Sukarnoputri (2001-04).

Arguably when SBY leaves office next year after fulfilling the maximum (but largely unremarkable) two terms in office, he will leave the nation in much better shape than when he assumed the presidency — but his great capacity for inaction and avoiding tough choices has hurt. For example, he has not taken a resolute stand on Islamic violence against religious minorities.

On his watch, triggered by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 170,000 deaths, negotiations ended the separatist rebellion in Aceh in 2005, where the devastation was concentrated; now the region enjoys a degree of autonomy and stability. In addition, decentralization has helped quell violence in other hot spots, but now that local politicians exert control over provincial resources, there are complaints that corruption has flowered. Suharto’s wife was known as “Madame 10 percent,” but she provided one-stop shopping. Now there are thousands of Suhartos looking for a bribe — and they can’t deliver as effectively.

Another key problem is that though the military may have retreated to barracks, its fingers remain in many pies. The military funds a considerable part of its budget through various entrepreneurial activities, not all above board, and — in cahoots with local politicians and gangs — they have figured out how to make decentralization a goldmine. However, keeping the military on board has been a priority for the nation’s nascent democracy, meaning the government turns a blind eye to protection rackets and other ventures and has not delved into accountability for past abuses during the New Order.

So Indonesia’s apparent strides forward may not appear so convincing to its own citizens. Those who have done well aspire to more, and those on the outside looking in wonder when will it be their turn. Poverty — an estimated 100 million eke by on less than $2 a day — remains a glaring reminder of unrealized promises. After all, the fifth pillar of Pancasila, the official national ideology, enshrines social justice as a right — though it’s one that has proved elusive.

Now, as Indonesia gears up for those presidential elections in 2014, the long shadows of the New Order are evident.

The early frontrunner is Prabowo Subianto, the former son-in-law of Suharto who, as a special-forces commander, was implicated in student shootings and orchestrating anti-Chinese riots in 1998 in order to sow chaos and justify a coup d’état. He failed, but reinvented himself as a successful entrepreneur and has liberally used his campaign war chest to generate a buzz; after all the past is the past.

Another leading candidate is from the Bakrie clan, a Suharto crony family. Aburizal Bakrie may be the head of Golkar, Suharto’s old party, but his prospects are slipping away along with his family’s fortunes, including a major scandal involving a Rothschild descendant.

And then there is Megawati — looking for redemption and more; bearing a name everyone recognizes, but not much else.

Into this miasma of politics a newcomer has stepped on stage: Joko Widodo, Jakarta’s new governor. He is untainted by scandal, has a stellar record and a populist touch — which explains why he is the odds-on favorite to succeed SBY.

But can he make a difference? In some ways he already has through unseating establishment incumbents, giving voice to the urban poor and unabashedly standing up to anti-Chinese sentiments while battling against globalization.

He is the man of the moment, a champion of the have-nots and marginalized — but the vested interests have enormous advantages and will probably get their way even if he represents change Indonesians want to believe in. And nobody is counting Prabowo Subianto out in what promises to be a bare-knuckles affair.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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