Scandal and Democracy By Mary E. McCoy

Democratic uprisings like the massive 1998 demonstrations that forced Suharto from power are relatively easy, but successful transitions to democracies that endure are difficult and rare. The jubilant upswell of optimism anticipated that judicial corruption, electoral fraud, a politicized military, elite rent seeking and behind the scene presidential manoeuvrings would end.

But rather than fleeing into exile in shame, Suharto ceded power to a handpicked successor and retired to his luxurious compound in Central Jakarta to enjoy his grandchildren, his pet tiger and access to an estimated $40 billion in ill-begotten wealth. Suharto’s political machine, the long-ruling government ruling party Golkar, retained control of both the executive and legislature that soon reversed the country’s struggle to launch democratic reforms. Regime cronies, incumbent officials and military leaders were determined to preserve such privileges as political office, government contracts and protected markets. 

As a reaction against the restoration of the old order, devastating scandals published in the media were used as political weapons. Under the Yudhoyono presidency, for example, a succession of mega scandals demonstrated the ability of the media to challenge the ruling party, block elite collusion and facilitate a change of government. In the 2014 presidential election, a full 15 years after Suharto’s ouster, the forces of reversal rallied around his son-in-law and regime enforcer, Lt. General (Ret.) Prabowo Subianto. In an explicit anti-democracy campaign, the candidate played upon nostalgia for the New Order in a desperate, determined effort to defeat a populist candidate, Joko Widowo, a furniture manufacturer and ex-mayor of Solo, Central Java. Ultimately, the opposition blocked his bid for authoritarian reversal and elected the country’s first nonelite president.

Many examples of both the media’s courage and servility are recounted in Scandal and Democracy, a thorough and deeply researched examination of Indonesia’s long and painful process of democratization gleaned through 20 years of hindsight. Author Mary E. McCoy, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spent a year doing fieldwork in Jakarta and availed herself of the insights, advice and perspectives of scores of friends, colleagues, editors, research assistants and anonymous reviewers in academia and government. A dedicated, meticulous and highly disciplined writer, McCoy corroborates her findings with other similar democratic transitions worldwide in Mexico, Tunisia, Egypt, Cambodia and South Korea where pseudo-democratic regimes with an indefinite lien on power have taken hold.

Throughout her book, McCoy focuses on the significant contribution that the media made to the collapse of the Suharto regime, ward off the return of authoritarian rule and continued to exert a central role during the transition to democracy. All major news outlets reported extensively on the economic crisis and consequent widespread protests that hit the country in 1997, proving acutely embarrassing for the government. The president’s accumulation of staggering wealth severely damaged his legitimacy and hastened his downfall. In the five critical years (1999 to 2004) after the end of Suharto’s downfall, the media imposed a new transparency upon events and elite rivalries that was critical in derailing the political collusion and electoral manipulation that threatened to curtail the country’s tempestuous democratic transition. A major milestone was the election in October 1999 of President Gus Dur, the first time that the long-reigning Golkar party was denied a continued lock on the executive. The relentless coverage of a campaign finance scandal known as “Baligate” irreparably discredited Golkar’s candidate, President Habibie, in the presidential race. This was the start of an era of politics by scandal that positioned the media as a lead player in a volatile pattern of intra-elite conflict.

With fascinating detail and sharp political, economic and social analysis, Scandal and Democracy is a penetrating book of astute and learned observations on how the media influenced the downfall of Suharto and the positive role that scandals played in exposing political corruption and hypocrisy through the crucial period of Indonesia’s transition from authoritarian rule to democracy.

The books ends with the author’s assurance that Indonesia has reached what she terms democratic consolidation. As it marks its 20th anniversary of the democratic revolution of 1998, the author asserts that the country remains among the world’s most resilient new democracies and one of the few successful democratic transitions in the Muslim world. McCoy concludes that democratization’s durability depends, to a surprising extent, on the role of the media.

But McCoy may have drawn her conclusions too soon. Since the book was published in early 2019, signs of fragility have appeared. In September of this year, student riots rocked the country after the legislature passed new anti-KPK and other anti-democratic laws, constituting an abrupt reversal of the trend towards democratization. In these events that the author could not have foreseen, elite collusion reveals itself again as being, as always, at the very heart of Indonesia’s democratic setbacks.

Scandal and Democracy: Media Politics in Indonesia by Mary E. McCoy, Cornell University Press 2019, ISBN 978-150-173-1044, paperback, 222 pages, dimensions 18 cm x 25.5 cm. Available in hardcover, paperback and eBook.

Review by Bill Dalton

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