Challenges to Democracy in Indonesia

Sukarno dissolved the legislature in March 1960 after the legislature rejected his budget. He then proclaimed a ‘Guided Democracy’ with a cabinet made up of representatives from the three main political parties. However, the Communist Party of Indonesia was not given any positions in this cabinet.

Despite this, many activists and citizens continue to face repression. The law restricts freedom of assembly and association. Amnesty International describes Indonesian law as vague and restrictive. It primarily targets political activists and pro-government elites, rather than ordinary citizens. The laws that are in place are outdated, too, with many originating from the Suharto era and Dutch colonial rule.

Despite these challenges, Indonesia has a stable democratic system. Four national elections have been held in the past 20 years, and none of them have been marred by violence or irregularities. Generally, the elections have been held in accordance with the Indonesian Constitution, with one exception. In November 2011, 40,000 troops marched into Jakarta with guns pointed at the presidential palace, and in December, parliament voted to remove Suharto’s mandate and replace it with the government of Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Despite this, corruption remains endemic in Indonesia. While some officeholders have been prosecuted for their actions, the majority of prosecutions are for corruption. The Anti-Corruption Commission, whose staff number is small, handled bribe cases against 257 parliamentarians, 21 governors, 119 regents, and 225 high-ranking bureaucrats in 2018. Because the anti-corruption commission is not well-funded, bribery is prevalent.

Indonesians differ about what constitutes democracy. Yet, the country has a functional system of government, with an active parliament and a large number of non-governmental organizations working to protect democracy and human rights. Moreover, only one president in the post-Suharto era has been a military figure.

The Indonesian people vote in parliamentary and presidential elections every five years. They elect presidents, members of the House of Representatives, and representatives of Regional Representative Councils. Moreover, they elect district and village heads. Despite the challenges, Indonesians generally believe that elections are fair and free, although some recent instances of vote-buying have been reported.

In addition, the Indonesian government has systematically hindered reporting on human rights abuses in West Papua. Journalists, researchers, and human rights monitors are unable to travel to the area because they are blocked by elements of the government. The government also uses various government ministries and agencies to harass and intimidate those who report on these abuses.

The crisis has also weakened the country’s democracy, with President Jokowi pursuing a dual strategy against the Islamist movement. While integrating centrist Islamist figures into the government, he has also repressed the most radical Islamist leaders. In December, the government banned a major Islamist organization, and its charismatic patron was jailed. Both strategies, however, undermined the country’s liberal freedoms.

While Indonesians generally have broad freedom of assembly and association, non-mainstream religious groups are not allowed to hold meetings. In addition, members of non-mainstream groups are often attacked and ostracized. The Indonesian government has increasingly used the amended Law 16/2017 on Mass Organizations to crack down on these groups. Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia and the Islamic Defenders Front are both banned. The government exploited social distancing concerns to push through its new laws.