Indonesia has made significant progress in democratization since the end of the Suharto dictatorship. Despite this progress, the country’s democratic institutions continue to face challenges in controlling corruption and improving management of public services. They also have to address the drivers of intolerance and radicalization, including the spread of Islamist extremism.
Developing a democracy in an enormous, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation is not a linear process. It takes time to build a robust democratic system in Indonesia, and there have been many setbacks along the way. Nonetheless, democracy in Indonesia has enjoyed considerable international praise and has been hailed as a rare example of democratic transition and persistence in the midst of global democratic setbacks.
The history of Indonesia’s development into a modern, democratic state is an interesting and complex story. It includes a period of authoritarianism under Suharto (1966-1998) and the “New Order” regime of President Megawati Sukarnoputri (2004-2014), as well as periods of guided democracy and liberal democracy in the post-Suharto era.
Guided Democracy and Liberal Democracy were characterized by the establishment of political institutions to increase representation, resolve regional and religious conflicts, and bring stability and development to the country. However, these institutions were weak in many ways and they struggled to deliver on the promises of the government. The subsequent emergence of authoritarian parties and the “political resource curse” – endemic economic and judicial corruption – undermined democratic development.
While the country’s parliamentary and direct popular elections have proceeded without violence, there are still serious issues in the democratic process. The military, which once ruled the country, remains a powerful force in politics and has continued to influence the selection of party candidates, the conduct of campaigns, and election outcomes.
Are laws, policies, and practices fair and equal? Are there sufficient legal remedies for people whose rights have been violated? Do the judicial and legislative branches of government act effectively to protect human rights? Are there effective mechanisms for investigating alleged crimes against humanity and other serious human rights violations?
In recent years, Indonesians have increasingly expressed their support for civilian rule and democracy. In 2018, a large majority (91%) of Indonesians voted in presidential and parliamentary elections. A similar percentage voted in local and regional elections. Nevertheless, a smaller number of Indonesians have participated in organized protests or posted their views on social media.
Indonesians have a diverse and vibrant media environment, though legal and regulatory restrictions continue to limit the ability of the press to report freely. A 2008 law criminalized libel and enshrined the prohibition of the distribution or accessibility of information that is “contrary to moral norms.” In January and February 2020, police detained journalist Muhammad Asrul for more than a month for alleged criminal defamation arising from a series of articles published about a corruption scandal.
Unlike the Suharto era, Indonesia’s media are robust and largely free of government control and sanction. Yet, a recent study from the Indonesia Survey Institute found that laws and practices against blasphemy and defamation have inhibited Indonesians’ ability to express their own views on sensitive topics.