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Democratization and Ethnic Politics in Indonesia: Nine Theses

Abstract

After the downfall of President Suharto in 1998, communal violence occurred in several Indonesian provinces, producing an image of the country as one characterized by strong ethnic politics. In this article, I propose that this image is mistaken. The political salience of ethnicity has subsided greatly as a new democratic system has settled into place. Overall, Indonesia is a weakly ethnicized polity. Ethnicity still counts in arenas such as local elections, but what prevails is a soft form of ethnic politics, with few of the deep disputes about ethnohistory or cultural policy that occur in more ethnicized polities. Moreover, rather than producing ethnic polarization, democratization has created powerful new norms of compromise. I present this overarching argument by advancing nine general theses on Indonesian ethnic politics and by pointing to explanations concerning institutional crafting, historical legacies, and the deep architecture of politics, notably the prevalence of patronage. Rather than positing definitive answers, I propose new questions and frameworks for investigating the weakness of ethnic politics in contemporary Indonesia.

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