Building Democracy in Indonesia

Building democracy in a large, multiethnic, and religiously diverse country like indonesia is not a linear process. During the first three decades of democracy, Indonesia had a mixed record of progress and backsliding. But since 1999, the country has established a pattern of peaceful handovers of power between rival political parties. Today, the majority of indonesia’s voters say they are satisfied with the state of democracy. The broader question is whether this democratic system can sustain the challenges that are now afflicting the nation, which are not unique to indonesia but reflect trends seen across much of the world.

The underlying strength of indonesia’s democracy lies in the fact that the vast majority of people who vote are affiliated with a party, and almost all of them participate in civic activities on some level. In a 2018 survey, 69% of indonesia’s citizens said they were likely to take action on any number of issues—including poverty, education, and the environment—by contacting an election official or participating in demonstrations. Roughly six-in-ten said they would also write a letter to a newspaper editor or post their opinions about social issues online.

In addition, many indonesia’s citizens have access to a wide range of civil society groups focused on the defense of democracy and human rights. These include a multitude of religious and nongovernmental organizations, as well as a number of private foundations with broad charitable missions. In the past, civil society has been a significant force behind the reforms that have strengthened indonesia’s democratic institutions.

But in the years that preceded the 1998 fall of Suharto’s New Order regime, the defining characteristic of indonesia’s politics was conflict and division. Attempts by the regime to manage these divisions failed. For example, when protesters gathered in the streets of Jakarta during Suharto’s final days as president, his aides urged him to use military force against them. He eventually resigned, realizing that his choice to confront the protesters would have unleashed an inexorable tide of violence.

The current political landscape remains divided along ideological and regional lines. The two major Islamic political parties—the National Awakening Party (PKB) and Nahdlatul Ulama’s National Democratic Party (PBB)—straddle the middle of the ideological spectrum and are more tolerant of cultural and religious diversity than other contemporary political parties. By contrast, the main political rival of president Jokowi—opposite presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra)—is more ideologically extreme and is based on the patronage of wealthy oligarchs who control much of indonesia’s economy.

These divisions are exacerbated by the fact that electoral laws and management bodies are often perceived as biased in favor of incumbent parties or partisan interests. In addition, the Supreme Court’s authority to review law and rule on constitutional matters is limited and not always exercised in a transparent or fair manner. This limits the ability of the Supreme Court to uphold democracy and protect Indonesians’ rights.