Challenges to Democracy in Indonesia

democracy in indonesia

Since the fall of Suharto, Indonesia has transformed from a closed and authoritarian state to one of the world’s most vibrant democracies. A key pillar of this success has been the growth of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that promote democracy, human rights, and civil society. But the country’s democratic experiment has not been free of significant challenges.

On 15 February, Indonesia held 101 local elections – or pilkada serentak — across the country, including municipal, district, and provincial levels. Prior to the election, religious leaders and the National Police publicly urged citizens to stay united. They argued that differences in candidate preferences are normal in a democracy, and they should not be used to divide the nation.

Yet despite the efforts of these institutions, Indonesia is still a long way from meeting the minimum thresholds for democracy. Although the nation’s electoral system is largely free from state-sponsored interference, it remains plagued by corruption, nepotism, and collusion between parties. The judiciary has a poor reputation, and the police often engage in arbitrary arrests and detentions of protesters or activists. Due process is rarely observed in civil and criminal cases, and judicial decisions are often influenced by religiosity.

The polarization of politics is also a challenge. Islamists and pluralists have a difficult time finding common ground, even within the same party. As a result, the most effective political alliances in Indonesia are based on patronage. These political networks cut across potentially polarizing socioreligious divisions in the name of electoral success and access to state resources. Patronage has thus been a powerful mechanism that tempers polarization in Indonesia, but it is not a substitute for broader ideological compromises.

Another thorny issue is the country’s social and economic inequality. The government has made progress in improving the lives of Indonesia’s poor, but poverty rates remain high. Some 10 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and more than 40 percent are vulnerable to falling into that category. And while the government has set minimum standards for wages and working conditions, violations continue to occur.

Finally, the country’s democratic experiment is challenged by the reemergence of extremism. Radical sectarian elements – especially militant Islamists – as well as political opportunists among the old elite, are exploiting rising social and political discontent to threaten Indonesia’s democracy. These threats are not exclusive to any one of the country’s major political factions, but they do reflect a deep societal malaise that requires urgent attention. Unless addressed, these challenges could undermine the country’s remarkable progress towards a fully functional democracy. Sana Jaffrey is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She specializes in democracy, governance, and religion in Southeast Asia. She has written extensively on the relationship between religion and politics in Indonesia. She is currently conducting research for her forthcoming book on democracy in post-Suharto Indonesia. Follow her on Twitter at @sanajaffrey.