Indonesia’s elites: A brief overview

by: Marudut R Napitupulu

Analyse the influence of elites in regard to globalization in one or more of the countries. Who are they? How do they become influential? What are the effects of their influence?


Globalization has been inevitably brought enormous impacts on political, social and economic dimensions of all countries. The rise of interconnectedness has been also significantly shaped power structures around the world. However, as the level of competition moves beyond the state, we witness that power and control over government policy is still dominated by particular groups of people, known as elites, who have abundant economic resources, political influence, military power, or other possession of dominant attributes or values such as religion and intellectuality.

I argue that in the case of Indonesia, elites have been played an important role in a complex power relationship around the government and politics. Historical comparison shows that each regime has formed different type of elites in different compositions and each of the elites has also influenced the political, economic and social policies. In regard to globalization, some of these elites have successfully adapted but some have also failed to adjust with along the domestic and global pressures. This paper provides a comparative analysis of the elites in Indonesia over four main periods: Colonial Era (Prior to 1945), Soekarno Old Era (1945-1965), Soeharto New Era (1966-1998) and post-Asian Financial Crises Reformation Era started from 1998 following the fall of Soeharto’s authoritarian regime.

Elite’s theories and globalization

The discussions about power, control, private interest and public interest, groups, classes, minority and majority, government versus market, and democracy have been some of the main concerns of the Elite Theory.  In general, the Elite Theory itself was defined in respond to the Marxist’s view. The latter argues that the power is in the hand of ruling class and can be passed to their next generations, while the former claims that the power will always be in the hand of more ‘superior’, more ‘vigorous’ group of individuals (Newton &  van Deth, 2010, pp.193-194).

Study about elites also involves with numerous normative and empirical cases. One of the well known empirical-based scholars is C. Wright Mills (1916-62), who finds that in 1950s, ‘the military-industrial complex’, a group of elites which consist of military leaders, top businessman, and political leaders, controlled the US decision making. Moreover, Mills also defines that this group, who controlled top decisions in both private and public spheres is ‘comes from the same middle- and upper-class background of interconnected families, schools, and universities, thinks and acts the same way’(Newton &  van Deth, 2010, p194). Adding to Mill’s proposition, Keller (1963, p.20) proposes ‘strategic elites’ which different from segmental elites, as a sustainable group that ‘not only political, economic, and military leaders, but also moral cultural, and scientific ones.’ The social dimension of strategic elites is very important in the globalization context.

Elite Theory also covers a crucial discussion around democracy and its relation with elites. Some scholars argue that elites can go hand in hand with democratic system.  While we see that most of the global elites are located in most developed democratic countries, on the other hand some scholars, like Michels with his ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’, argue that ‘mass democracy is impossible because a small group will always dominate politics’ (Newton & van Deth, 2010, p194). In contrast, Bottomore, in criticizing both Mosca and Pareto’s views of elite and in supporting Karl Mannheim’s claim, argues as the political parties compete for people votes through general election, it means that ‘the elites are relatively ‘open’ and are recruited on the basis of merit’ (1964, p.87).

People change, and so too do societies and elites. Globalization has also brought changes in which Graz (2010, p.324) writes ‘the significance of new agents in the global political economy beyond states and markets’. As the interconnectedness rises, we will be more familiar with new terms such as: ‘global elite’, ‘transnational elite’, ‘world-wide elite’ and other similar terms to describe the existence external powers beyond the state.  In her Shadow Elite, Wedel (2009, p.5) defines these transnational influencers as ‘flexians’ which operate under the ‘flex nets’ that with ‘systemic change’ undermine ‘modern state, free markets, and democracy itself’.  In sum, to focus on elite definition, Higley’s (2008) suggests that elites can be defined as ‘persons who, by virtue of their strategic locations in large or otherwise pivotal organisations and movements, are able to affect political outcomes regularly and substantially’.

Elite in Indonesia

In the background of above theories, this section identifies Indonesian elites and their influences in decision making process through political, economic and social dimensions.

Over less than seven decades, Indonesia has experienced dramatic changes in government systems. Prior to 1945, Indonesia was a colonial state ruled by the Dutch over three hundred years and Japanese power about three and a half years. Since the independence, three major forms of government can be identified. The period from 1945 to 1965 is identified as the Soekarno’s regime or ‘Old Order Era’ with his revolutionist movement dominated by challenges to imperialism and colonialism. The period from 1966 to 1998 is called as the Soeharto’s regime or ‘New Order Era’ which was characterized by authoritarianism and dictatorship over 32-year presidency.  The Reformation Era started from 1998 toward a multi-party democratic state just before the third millennium begins.

The changes in the regimes have also significantly influenced the domestic power structures, in which elites played a set of dynamic roles in adjusting to different situations.  Indeed, it is clear from a political perspective that the pendulum has shifted once in favour of nationalist groups, then, later shifted to the military-industrial regime; then nationalist-religious groups took power, and most finally nationalist military-background and technocrat leaders, won the political battle.

Elites over Dutch Colonial Era and Soekarno’s Era

During the colonial era, elites in Indonesia were mainly dominated by the landlords, religious leaders, the Chinese traders, and the local elites such as Javanese aristocrat elite or priyayi.  From historical perspective, this composition has a strong connection with multi-cultural archipelagic and agrarian based nation state prior to Indonesian modern society.

Prior to 1945, as the consequence of newly independence nation, politic aliran (stream) which represented many sub-national political cultures and ideologies with real constituents parties grew faster. Under his patrimonial leadership, revolutionist idea and strong persuasive-speaker skills, Soekarno has successfully combined the disintegrated political elites through idea of NASAKOMIzation by created a power balanced between nationalist, religious and communist leaders (Lane, 2010 p.33-34). Moreover, in opposition to western domination, nationalization of Dutch industries was one of Soekarno central economic policy in which he granted the military power to participate in managing most of the state enterprises (Lane, 2010 p.37, 43).

In sum, elites in the period of Soekarno regime were emerging in the onset of independence and can be refer as a set of Indonesian elites’ foundation. However, economic depression and political tensions across the nations during this revolution era have finally led to the rise of new order era of Soeharto.  As one of elite hypothesis points out that ‘power is passing from specialists on persuasion to specialist of coercion’ (Lasswell et al 1952, p.16).

Soeharto re-shaping of elites

In contrast with Soekarno regime, Soeharto successfully re-shaped political elites and politic aliran parties to support his counter-revolution and central planning development agendas. Elite politics no longer acted as the channel for people aspirations but as authoritarian arms-length. In other words, political parties neither have real constituents nor real political competition. Similar with Mill’s ‘military-industrial complex’ elites in US during 1950s (Newton &  van Deth, 2010, p194) , Soeharto successfully controlled Indonesian elites by using military forces, collusion and nepotism practices in bureaucratic, highly regulated media and other means of coercion. He was the head of military and bureaucracy, the leader of Golkar and also distributed business interests with his Chinese businessmen and military cronies.

In relation to global elite, Soeharto’s early political-economic policy was also strongly supported by the group of Indonesian western-educated scholars which is often associated with the ‘Barkeley Mafia’ a group of technocrat elites that has been strategically prepared in the US through leading universities in support of the transnational elite, a ‘corporationists’ foundation with their main motto ‘you can’t have a modernizing country without a modernizing elite’ (Bresnan 1993, p.83; Lane 2008, p.58; Ransom, 1975).  However, it is also important to note that during opened trade policy and the prior to Cold War in the late 1980s Soeharto once no longer supported his western-minded advisory which in turn he appointed BJ Habibie for his industrial development policy.

The re-emergence of elites with Reformation Era

Following the fall of Soeharto in May 1998, Vice President B.J Habibie automatically presumed the presidential office. The political atmosphere of 1998-1999 is very crucial in analysing the roles of the elites and their competing powers in the Indonesian context. The multi-dimensional crisis was severe, made even worse by the Asian Financial Crisis. The mass demonstrations, riots and protests were found in various areas both in Jakarta and other major cities across Indonesia. In order to stabilize the national situation, Habibie, in support of his administration team, tried to accommodate every interests and reform proposals. Only in a few months, he then conducted massive ‘big bang reforms’, released political prisoners, announced a general election, dismissed military political involvement, issued decentralization law and even gave the opportunity for East Timor to hold a referendum (Huxley, 2010 p.14, 33).

The reformation era covers four presidential administrations from Habibie (1998-1999), Abdulrahman Wahid (1999-2001), Megawati Soekarnopoetri (2001-2004) and finally since 2004 Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono came to power. As political regime changed along the reformation stage, political parties mushroomed, there are no more political restrictions, except for communist-based party. Although the number of political parties significantly multiplied over the last three elections, some old-regime elites can be found among the political leaders. Even, Golkar, a Soeharto political vehicle, was still able to exercise its political manoeuvres. In relation to political parties, Marcus Mietzner (2008) argues that ‘most Indonesian parties are still rooted in distinct social, religious or ideological milieus, and the majority of voters feel reluctant to move between those constituencies’ and the election law that forces party to establish their local branches has made the new comers less competitive.

Similar with New Order era, after reformation, political elites in Indonesia are based on two poles of powers: nationalist and religious based political parties. However, apart from those two options, the middle pole as the combination of religious nationalist-oriented constituents becomes very influential after the reformation era. This phenomenon is best explained by the fast growing moderate view among the majority of the Indonesian. It is also due to the repression over politic aliran in Soeharto era that in turn shapes Indonesian political culture becomes moderate rather than holds extreme political views. Therefore, middle pole oriented parties such Partai Demokrat, PDIP and Golkar have won the majority votes over the last two elections (2004 and 2009).

In the case of Indonesia, however, some of recent political elites have strong relationship with their predecessors both based on family connection and old military-business mutual partnership. The former relationship accounts to explain family connection of elite’s recruitment, to name a few: Soekarno and his daughter Megawati Soekarnopoetri, the fifth President and the leader of Indonesian Democratic Struggle Party (PDIP); Wahid Hasyim of Masyumi and his son Abdurrahman Wahid, known as Gus Dur, the founder of PKB; Soeharto and his daughter Siti Hardijanti Rukmana called Mbak Tutut the founder of PKPB. The latter relationship covers: Wiranto of Hanura, the military general of Soeharto’s era; Prabowo of Gerindra, the son ‘Mafia Barkley’ member Sumitro Djojohadikusumo and also a high-rank military background of Seoharto’s son-in-law. This situation may also reveal that most of political elites were still dominated by the wealthier, military and religious influential groups that have successfully accumulated their powers.

Furthermore, in this paper, I will also argue that political and business elites always go hand-in-hand in mutual benefit relationship. The economic elites need politician, both military and decision making interventions, to support their business. On the other hand, the political elites need financial support in strengthening their political influence and maintaining the constituents. In the colonial era, the group of Chinese-Indonesia businessmen has long been dominated the economic sectors. Despite their comparative advantages on trade and business, they were also supported by the Duth, both by military power and segregated trade policy. Thus, only few of indigenous or pribumi were able to compete with Chinese businessmen.

The above economic elite composition only slightly changed during post colonial era, with the addition of military business of Soeharto and few pribumi businessmen. Hill (2000, p.111) finds that in 1994 among the top 25 conglomerates in Indonesia only four of the firms owned by the pribumi which two of them owned by Soeharto’s sons. Another 21 were in the hands of ‘Sino-Indonesian’ business groups. A decade later, the economic elites are still dominated by the Sino-Indonesian groups which accounts for almost 90% (Forbes, 2010). Again, only few of pribumi are in the Indonesia’s richest list, such as: Peter Sondakh, Chairul Tanjung, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, and Arifin Panigoro, Aburizal Bakrie. The last three business elites also strongly related with political parties and the latter is the chairman of Golkar.

Apart from political and economic elites, it is clear, that military elite as a part of social elites have also important roles in which have served the interests of the others elite and enjoyed economic and political privileges (Sukardi, 1998 p.206-208).  In addition, considering the archipelagic geographic and multi-cultural country such as Indonesia, numbers of social elites even many. Religious groups of elites and intellectual elites have also influenced the political decisions in Indonesia. In addition, the implementation of decentralization policy through the devolution of political and economic powers to the regions, has also contributed in the growing number of local elites which dominated by the local ethnic leaders that ironically has promoted ‘aristocratic bureaucracy’ in local governments (Vickers, 2005 p.221).

Elites’ Reaction to Globalization

Above types of elite not are not only influenced by the endogenous factors, however. This section also recognizes many external factors which have contributed in shaping elites and their role in Indonesia. Globalization as external force has directly and indirectly manifested in two forms of influence: in form of concrete influences such as capital, technology, human resources, FDI, TNCs, global elites; and an in form of abstract involvements such as the rise of new ideas, knowledge, ways of living, popular culture and other non-material values. These influences are interrelated and reinforced one another.

In political dimension, globalization through shared of ideas has also shaped the Indonesian political culture from colonial era until reformation era. For instance, the Chinese and Russian revolutions in late 1910s have triggered significant impact over Indonesia movements against imperialism. Subsequently, the communist’s idea of Lenin and Mao along with nationalist and religious became one of the popular political ideas among the elites in Soekarno era. The following period of Soeharto regime also supported by the global power of Western and American anti-communist with neo-liberalis and market oriented values. The end of the cold war in 1991 and the global concern over human rights combined with the rapid grows of Indonesian political consciousness has then also contributed in the fall of Soeharto dictatorship. As new era of reform begins, the political elites, again, have to adjust their structures.

The business elites have also adjusted with the global pressures and competed with transnational elites for economic interests. Moreover, following the economic crisis, international donors and institutions such as IMF, Wold Bank, WTO have conditionally required good governance practices and minimum government intervention over trade and financial policies by further emphasized privatization and neoliberal market-oriented policies. This policy, arguably favours global elite with their abundant human and financial resources. As Wedel (2009, p.45) points out that’ neoliberal policies could not help but facilitate the blurring of state and private relationships and authority’.

In response to global economic challenges and competition among the elites, one of Indonesian prominent economists argued that ‘Indonesia cannot allow itself to maintain a system in which transaction costs are excessive because of a lack of rule-based behaviour’ (Soesastro 2000, p.53). He then suggested the need for ‘a new pattern of governance’ in which assures ‘the full involvement of civil society and strong balanced between the three sectors: state, market and civil society’ (2000, p.54).

In social contexts, global changes through the rapid increase of information and internet revolution, has also manifested in the rise cosmopolitanism, the growing number of NGOs, which in turn shaped the social values toward global community. Furthermore, some global issues such as gender issues, human rights, environment, good governance, consumer voice have also become the main global concerns (Hebron & Stack, 2010 pp.68, & 72-77). Apart from international aid conditionality, these pressures also significantly influenced the demand government transparency and accountability thus manifested in the changes in political institutions, such the establishment of Anti Corruption Comission (KPK) and Consitutional Court in Indonesia.

In addition, the military political involvement, which prior to reformation was very powerful; has been significantly limited to only focus on national defence and security issues. Moreover, in major cities such Jakarta, religious and ethnicity values gradually diminished toward more popular culture. This set of changes has also brought enormous impacts for elite composition and the re-emergence of intellectual skills ‘whose capital is his knowledge’ (Lasswell et al 1952, p.18). The bureaucratic recruitment, for instance, has shifted toward a merit system such as skill, competency and capacity based recruitment.


It is clear, then, that elites have always been an important part of Indonesian political, social, and economic dimensions. Based on above historical comparison we can draw some brief propositions.  Firstly, endogenous and exogenous pressures have shaped the power structures in Indonesia, from emergence to re-emergence of the elites. There is also a ‘the decline of elites based on pre-industrial institutions’ as we moved toward modern history of Indonesia (Lasswell et al 1952, p.15). Secondly, globalization through privatization of economic, decentralization, free-press, the increase of cosmopolitanism, the wide spread of information, tendency toward popular culture has directly and indirectly transformed new powers structure in Indonesia toward democratic state with significant adjustments of political institutions and elite recruitment.

Thirdly, in this essay, I will also argue that as Indonesia moves toward stable democratic state, Indonesian elites will face more dynamic challenges. There is a tendency that consolidation process will be more peaceful as power-sharing commitment through ‘political consensuses’ among the elites will be a main characteristic of Indonesian political culture (von Luebke 2010, p.90). Such consensus is very important to set a foundation for stable and robust democracy in Indonesia. Finally, to understand such a complex power relationship between state and non-state actors, between the interests of elites and the benefits to rest of the people, further study particularly about Indonesian elites demands more comprehensive analyses especially in relation with the ongoing global pressures.


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