The Indonesian achievement is all the more noteworthy considering the preexisting constitution, with its murky relations between the MPR and the president, its unique legislature and supralegislature, the latter with unelected military, regional, and functional-group members, its hypercentralization, and its absence of legal controls. That a gradual reform reduced these anomalies progressively until they disappeared, and ultimately produced a defensible set of institutions, was in itself remarkable.
It was clear from the beginning that the 1945 constitution, sacred to some, deeply flawed to others, was, for the moment, untouchable if the process were to get off to a smooth start. For that reason, Habibie’s policy of elections before amendment was uncontested. Apart from that, nothing about possible new institutions was clear, and just about everything was in flux.
Much changed along the way. At the outset and even much later, there was considerable support for single-member, constituency-based elections, so as to kill central party dictatorship and hold representatives accountable to the voters. Yet such an electoral law was never enacted. There was, likewise, great doubt about whether there would or could be a directly elected president. Many wanted presidential accountability to the electorate, but powerful forces opposed it, and some feared a strong presidency would revive authoritarianism. In 1998, there was much sentiment in favor of – in the most popular phrase of the period – checks and balances, indeed so many of them that there might be a proliferation of veto centers: a president and vice president from different parties (possibly elected indirectly), a multiparty cabinet, two or even three houses of the legislature (the DPR, MPR, and a new regional house), staggered terms, strong judicial review, regional devolution, and a broad, sword-of-Damocles impeachment power. With a parliament divided among four or five main parties, these institutions might well produce weak government with a high degree of internal conflict and immobilism.