Dictators Never Die: Political Transition, Dynastic Regime Recovery and the 2021 Suharto Commemoration in Indonesia.

AuthorTyson, Adam

Political transition theory provides indicators of successful democratization, including the two turnover or alternation test in elections, the rule of law, press freedom and institutional reform. However, critics of political transition theory respond with evidence of an "alternation fallacy" featuring political turnovers without substantive transformation in countries such as Zambia. (1) The distinction between system change and regime change thus remains ambiguous. After rapid political transitions from authoritarian to democratic systems, old guard elites in new democracies such as Indonesia and the Philippines have sought to recapture power and protect their wealth. The authors characterize this as a process of dynastic regime recovery, in which elite networks seek to control discursive spaces as part of a broader strategy to regain political power and legitimacy.

At the early stages of political transitions, distortions such as resource misallocation, elite capture and disinformation will often persist into democracy. (2) This article examines the ways in which interlocking elites with business and political backgrounds established during the Suharto era (1966-98) have strategically adapted to and distorted Indonesia's competitive multi-party system. The authors gathered rare data from 21 interviews with members of the Suharto family and their associates, as well as observations from an invitation-only commemorative event celebrating the centenary of Suharto's birth on 8 June 2021. The centenary event represented a network-led revanchist effort to promote a positive narrative about Suharto's presidency as a constituent part of a complex regime recovery strategy. The 2022 election of Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. in the Philippines indicates that there are opportunities for the rehabilitation of formerly discredited political dynasties. The recovery of the Suharto family legacy, business networks and political party coalitions has yet to ensure their institutional recapture or electoral victory, but it is too soon to write a definitive political obituary.

This article is structured as follows. The first section outlines the analytical framework and study design for the analysis of political transitions and commemoration. The second justifies the selection of the Indonesian case study with the relevant background and context. The third section provides a thematic analysis of our empirical findings from fieldwork in Indonesia from 2020 to 2021. The final section concludes with a synthesis of our main findings and academic contributions.

Theories of Political Transition and Commemoration

Democracy has largely been in regression across the world since the mid-2000s, with declinist sentiments linked to concerns about political legitimacy, prosperity and effective governance. (3) Recent indicators from Freedom House show 16 consecutive years of decline in global freedoms, and that some countries are clearly struggling in the transitional space between authoritarianism and democracy. (4) In crisis-driven political transitions such as post-communist Russia in 1991 or post-financial crash Indonesia in 1998, the "moving ruins" of former regimes persist into democracy. (5) These moving ruins distort democracy as ideological and cultural relics carry over from the former regimes, and as post-tenure impunity is brokered between the deposed leaders and their successors. Technical studies of systemic transitions are therefore incomplete without an account of emerging configurations of power and processes of regime recovery.

Regime resilience is rooted in national cultural foundations, institutional structures and the mobilization of broad political coalitions through wealth distribution and patronage. (6) Our study advances this line of analysis by emphasizing the strategic mobilization of discourse via commemoration networks to advance the interests of political dynasties in their attempts to achieve regime recovery. Regime recovery occurs when there are unresolved political tensions in young democracies, as suggested by the illiberal Orbanization of Hungary caused in part by the persistence of social hierarchy, prejudice and authority more than 30 years after the country's political transition. (7) Hungary has been characterized as a "diffusely defective democracy" after abruptly turning away from liberal democracy and European Union norms. (8) Similarly, the populist strongman leader Rodrigo Duterte was elected to the presidency in the Philippines 30 years after the People Power movement ousted the authoritarian regime of President Ferdinand Marcos. As Duterte is only allowed to serve a single term, his departure has set the scene for the restoration of the Marcos dynasty with Ferdinand's son securing the presidency in 2022. For comparison, more than two decades have passed since the fall of Suharto in Indonesia, but latent processes of regime recovery are underway.

To the extent that Indonesia fits the prevailing model of "patronage democracy", where material benefits are routinely exchanged for political support, it follows that regime recovery involves forms of contingent exchange. (9) A second type of currency in this model of patronage democracy is the non-material exchange of ideas and visions for the future. Commemoration networks make instrumental use of public memory to control discursive spaces and influence perceptions about political priorities in young democracies such as Indonesia.

In a study of the political afterlife of Japanese prime ministers, researchers conclude that "political obituaries should never be written too early". (10) This is duly noted in the case of the Philippines. In 2016, 27 years after Ferdinand Marcos' death in exile in Hawaii, President Duterte authorized the controversial reburial of the former president in the national Heroes' Cemetery in Manila. In May 2022, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. won the presidential election, with Sara Duterte elected as his Vice President, in a major reversal of fortunes for a family dynasty synonymous with kleptocratic, sultanistic and militaristic rule. (11) This electoral victory is explained by the persistence of support for the Marcos family in their "solid north" provincial stronghold of Ilocos Norte, the replication of dynastic patronage politics at subnational levels and the strategic use of memory politics. (12) The close proximity between authoritarianism and democracy in transitional countries suggests that autocrats, living or dead, have the potential "to raise their heads" whenever democracy falters. (13)

Suharto's six children and their close associates retain considerable wealth and power in "post-Suharto" Indonesia. They do not have a provincial stronghold like the Marcos family, but they are able to influence political movements and engage in memory politics. Suharto's two eldest daughters organized commemoration events throughout 2021 with the support of an interweaving network of political, cultural and religious elites. The Suharto centenary was a deeply significant historical event, but not a popular commemoration or a public spectacle. The main story trending on Twitter in Indonesia on 8 June concerned the South Korean band EXO. All major Indonesian newspapers and television stations covered the centenary, but it was not headline news. Neither was 8 June an official state commemoration. President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo took the unconventional decision to avoid formal press statements and public appearances on that day. There was no mention of Suharto's centenary in the record of presidential speeches on the Cabinet Secretary's website, and the attempted immurement of Suharto's legacy is combined with selective historical revisionism by the government. (14) By contrast, in January 2008, then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared a week of national mourning after Suharto's death, while also attending the state funeral with members of the Suharto family, foreign dignitaries and diplomats. The ceremony included a military guard of honour, and most of the Indonesian news coverage focused on the positive aspects of Suharto's presidency. (15)

Suharto's centenary commemoration should be understood as an active attempt by a network of partisan actors with varying interests to appropriate the past in order to catalyse the political rehabilitation of a dynastic regime. Centenaries of historical figures are often said to owe "less to national pride and government support than to local patriotism and commercial interest". (16) Constituencies in various parts of Indonesia have ideological and material interests rooted in the Suharto developmental regime. Suharto's centenary is political, the product of "very contemporary preoccupations" championed by private political actors whose hopes for the future are partially inspired by their heroes from the past. (17) Political centenaries sometimes involve the complicity of state actors. The Suharto family co-sponsored commemorative events in 2021 in tandem with local government departments and Javanese royals from Yogyakarta and Surakarta, using the centenary to promote the political ideologies, charitable foundations and business ventures developed by the Suharto regime. Some members of this network are trying to exploit the remaining premiums associated with the Suharto franchise, in keeping with the pragmatic, transactional nature of Indonesia's patronage democracy.

Suharto's rural upbringing and limited education were unlikely antecedents for his rise as one of Asia's most brutal, durable, avaricious and successful dictators. (18) When Suharto died in 2008, one observer noted that he left behind a "wordless memory" because of his lack of speechmaking abilities and charisma. (19) This may hold true today, but the network of memory curators tasked with the recovery of his legacy are filling the narrative gaps. The network behind Suharto's commemoration network is seeking...

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