Posted by: Fadjar Thufail | August 22, 2006

Cartoons and Democracy

From SSRC-GSC Quarterly Newsletter, No. 4, Spring 2002



By Fadjar Thufail

Cartoons and Soeharto

For thirty two years Indonesia had experienced tight political control. Since coming to power in 1965, by means of what most observers have called a �parlimentary coup d�etat�, Soeharto had exercised strict restriction on public political expression. He banned dissident voices on the basis of �obstructing national stability� and �threatening national development.� He perceives social and political critiques as a direct challenge, and calls himself �the father of the nation� (Bapak Bangsa) and �the father of development� (Bapak Pembangunan). Only in 1998, when massive and unprecedented student and popular demonstrations managed to force him to step down, could the Indonesian public begin to enjoy more room to voice their political aspirations and critiques to the government.

Like other Indonesian political commentators, cartoonists had to learn ways to cope with Soeharto government�s strict monitoring of their work. For instance, Kompas daily newspaper � the biggest newspaper in Indonesia � features regular cartoon Oom Pasikom (Uncle Pasikom), and comic strip Panji Koming appears in its Sunday edition.To avoid provoking government�s reaction, these cartoons need to know how to relay their messages of political and social critiques covertly. Oom Pasikom presents its critique in the form of social irony, therefore it manages to deliver the message without directly confronting the government or the military. On the other hand, Panji Koming draws on allegory, commenting on contemporary social and political problems through the lens of scenes and symbolisms of Javanese culture. Panji Koming characters remind one of the depiction of ancient Javanese society commonly found in traditional theaters and popular films.

The central figure in Panji Koming cartoon is Panji Koming himself, a honest, humble, and plain village man. He has a close friend, Pailul, who, despite being a humble and honest man, often fails to act in a proper mannner. Being na�ve, Pailul often provokes Denmas Aria Kendor, a wealthy, powerful, and arrogant nobleman, to get angry. Also a central character is Empu Randubantal, an old guru whose teaching often aggravates a problem rather than solving it. In the comics, one can find another central �figure� called �the coconut�. It represents the power of the nature to punish anyone � most of the time it is Denmas Aria Kendor � who has committed bad deeds.

Oom Pasikom and Panji Koming cartoons illustrate the struggle Indonesian cartoonists must face in trying to mitigate the government�s strict control during the Soeharto period. Oom Pasikom plays with the irony delivered in visual and verbal language. The cartoonist presents social criticism in a single frame in which he draws the scene � such as scenes on corruption, mismanagement of public funds, violence, et cetera � without identifying the actors committing the deeds. Sometimes the cartoonist uses captions to represent dialogues between Oom Pasikom and imaginary audience. On the other hand, Panji Koming gains popularity from audience�s familiarity with the cartoon�s cultural reference. In depicting Panji Koming characters as Javanese, the cartoonist invites audience to identify the characters with bureaucrats and Soeharto himself. Both Soeharto and G.M. Sudarta, the cartoonist, are Javanese. While Sudarta criticizes excessive �Javanization� of bureaucracy, Soeharto forced bureaucracy to apply and adhere to his version of Javanese cultural values.

Post-Soeharto Cartoons

Soeharto�s resignation has brought a more open political climate, although crisis triggered by regional economic downturn remains a factor that impedes the struggle for democratic society. Violence, ethnic and religious conflicts, political jockeying in the parliamentary, and rampant corruption within the bureaucracy continue to exist and provide the backdrop for a society seeking to come to terms with its abusive past. Post-Soeharto Indonesia witnesses the proliferation of communal sentiments, long buried under the guise of �national unity� and �national harmony,� and currently exacerbated by a failed total reorganization of the military structure and the system of justice.Corrupt apparatuses of the past regime continue their practices and the military fails to respond to the call for more respect to human rights values.

Despite the continuation of past practices, political criticism in the post-Soeharto period � especially during the presidency of Abdurahman Wahid � is no longer a taboo. Various voices of disappointment with the way the government responds to an economic and political crisis have filled public space and electronic as well as printed media. In the realm of popular culture, one can also notice the growing excitement with such political openness, and cartoonists are among those actors most ready to take part in the public talk of democratization.


In 1999, Friedrich Naumann Stiftung (FNS), a German-based philantropic organization, in cooperation with Indonesian Cartoonist Association (PAKARTI), sponsored a series of exhibitions called �Cartoon for Democracy.� PAKARTI accepted hundreds of cartoons sent from all over Indonesia, made a selection of ninety cartoons, and put them in a traveling exhibition. The exhibition was held in six big cities: Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Semarang, Surabaya, and Denpasar; all located in the island of Java, except Denpasar which is in Bali.

The year 1999 witnessed an important moment in Indonesian history. One year after Soeharto�s forced resignation, a democratic general election was held in 1999. In the meantime, B.J. Habibie, Soeharto�s vice-president, served as an interim president until the general assembly elected a new president. The 1999 general election was held in order to elect new members of the House of Representatives, who would later nominate candidates for president and eventually choose one among the candidates. During thirty-two years of his regime (1966-1998), Soeharto exercised a tight control over this supposedly democratic process. He established a political mechanism in which he managed to control the general election process, choose members of the House who were loyal to him, and prevented critical figures to be elected as House members. Over thirty-two years, Indonesians witnessed �the ritual of sameness�, a �democratic� ritual in which Soeharto always ended up winning the presidential seat.

The exhibition catalogue prepared by FNS identifies the exhibition�s purpose as �providing information and education about the general election, parliament, and democracy.� The exhibited cartoons called upon the public to learn and be aware that the 1999 general election was different from previous events held during Soeharto�s political regime. The exhibition invited the public to realize that the 1999 election determined how the Indonesian people would chart their path toward a more democratic and open society. The exhibited cartoons touched upon various themes.In this brief sketch, I will provide only the major and most important of the themes:

Proliferation of Political Parties:

Proliferation of political parties has been the major theme depicted in most of the cartoons displayed in the exhibition. Within only one year after Soeharto stepped down in 1998, one hundred forty-eight new political parties emerged. But only forty-seven parties were allowed to take part in the election. This number illustrates a big change in the history of the general election in Indonesia, since for thirty-two years Soeharto had restricted political parties to three: PPP, Golkar, and PDI. Although three parties existed previously, none of them actually functioned as a working political party. Soeharto imposed effective control on them and required them to show allegiance to a single national ideology, the Pancasila, and to a single national leadership, Soeharto himself.


The 1999 general election is the first democratic election Indonesia has had since the election that took place in 1955. Most cartoonists of the younger generation have no experience with taking part in a multi-party election. Therefore, the proliferation of political parties in 1999 was an unprecedented historical event for most young cartoonists and their works certainly reflect not only their fascination, but also their anxious commitment to such openness. A comparison between the 1999 election and the previous experience of restricted and engineered general election has figured prominently in the exhibition. Click here for several examples of the cartoons:



All cartoons are from Cartoon for Democracy (Catalogue of Exhibition) (Jakarta: Friedrich Naumann Stiftung and PAKARTI: 1999).

Panji Koming cartoons are from Muhammad Nashir Setiawan, Menakar Panji Koming (Jakarta: Kompas, 1998).


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