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Indonesia: Traditional Political Culture
Country Study > Chapter 4 > Government and Politics > Political Culture > Traditional Political Culture


In the late twentieth century, there were as many traditional political cultures in Indonesia as there were ethnic groups. Nevertheless, the similarity to the Javanese kingship model of Suharto's increasingly paternalistic rule reflects the Javanese cultural underpinnings of the New Order. Although Indonesia was a cultural mosaic, the Javanese, with more than 45 percent of the total population in the 1990s, were by far the largest single ethnic group. Moreover, they filled -- to a degree beyond their population ratio -- the most important roles in government and ABRI but also because ABRI seemed to regard the great predominance of Javanese in the officer ranks as a matter of policy. The Javanese cultural predispositions influenced, therefore, the way the government appealed to the population and interactions within the New Order elite.

On Java power historically has been deployed through a patrimonial bureaucratic state in which proximity to the ruler was the key to command and rewards. This power can be described in terms of a patron-client relation in which the patron is the bapak (father or elder). The terms of deference and obedience to the ruler are conceived in the Javanese gustikawula (lord-subject) formulation, which describes man's relationship to God as well as the subject's relationship to his ruler. The reciprocal trait for obedience is benevolence. In other words, benefits flow from the center to the obedient. By extension government's developmental activities are a boon to the faithful. Bureaucratically Javanese culture is suffused with an attitude of obedience -- respect for seniors, conformity to hierarchical authority, and avoidance of confrontation -- characteristics of the preindependence priyayi class whose roots go back to the traditional Javanese courts.

Javanism also has a mystical, magical dimension in its religiously syncretic belief system, which integrated pre-Indian, Indian, and Islamic beliefs. Its practices include animistic survivals, which invest sacred heirlooms (pusaka) with animating spirits, and rites of passage whose antecedents are pre-Islamic. Javanism also encompasses the introspective ascetic practices of kebatinan (mysticism as related to one's inner self), which seek to connect the microcosms of the self to the macrocosms of the universe. This adaptive belief system defines Suharto's underlying spiritual orientation. Furthermore, the politics of Javanism have been defensive, seeking to preserve its particular heterogenous practices from demands for Islamic orthodoxy. Rather than Islamic political parties, the Javanese have often turned to more secular parties: Sukarno's Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI), the PKI, and Golkar.

Data as of November 1992

Last Updated: November 1992

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Indonesia was first published in 1993. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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Section 147 of 210


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