Since the fall of Suharto’s regime in 1998, Indonesia has consolidated its democratic institutions and run successful elections at many levels of government. However, the military is still powerful, and political actors with ties to the military are gaining prominence. Efforts to curb the influence of the military will need to focus on strengthening civilian bureaucracy, the free and active press, independent courts, and fair elections.
The general public remains largely nonpolitical and reluctant to get involved in political affairs, especially online, though majorities have expressed support for a few key issues. Nevertheless, the country has a vibrant civil society and a robust media sector that are vital for maintaining openness and accountability.
Despite two decades of reforms, Indonesia’s democracy remains vulnerable to political and economic threats. The most obvious threat comes from the military, which remains entrenched in a traditional security role and is often influenced by internal cleavages. In addition, the country faces a number of challenges related to social inequality and wealth disparity, including an uneven health system and growing activity by radical sectarian groups.
In recent years, Indonesia has seen a series of attempts to roll back the gains of its post-Suharto transition. One of the most recent efforts, a bill passed in September 2019 gutting the anti-graft agency, has drawn widespread protests but has yet to be implemented. The ensuing crisis suggests that elected representatives are using their popular mandate to dismantle sources of democratic accountability.
Direct regional elections – which are increasingly viewed as a democratizing tool – have created a two-tier system of governance. As a result, some areas are not ready to bear the burden of responsible electoral choices. As a remedy, the government is developing an asymmetric model of direct elections that would allow direct polls in areas where voters are competent to make responsible electoral choices but revert to indirect regional elections in areas deemed not ready to assume such responsibility.
Legislative and executive powers are decentralized in Indonesia, with the parliament (MPR) based in Jakarta and the government based in regional capitals. The MPR is a bicameral body, with the lower house of the parliament consisting of a Council of People’s Representatives and the Council of Regional Representatives.
The MPR is tasked with interpreting the Constitution and broad lines of state policy. A bicameral parliament is essential for the legislature to be effective and provide a unified voice to the country’s various interests. The MPR has a high degree of independence from the executive branch, with the president being required to consult with the MPR before making major policy decisions.
Regulatory changes, such as laws against blasphemy and those that limit the dissemination of certain types of information, have made it harder for individuals to express their views on sensitive topics. Research by the Indonesia Survey Institute and survey firm Indikator Politik Indonesia has shown that such measures have a chilling effect on the nation’s citizenry, with more than half of Indonesians saying they would be less likely to discuss politics in the future.