Democracy in Indonesia

democracy in indonesia

Since the overthrow of Suharto’s dictatorship in 1998, Indonesia has forged ahead toward a functional democracy, with a strong economy and a largely free press. Yet challenges persist in the nation of 260 million, including poverty that remains high, uneven access to education and health care, and the activities of radical sectarian elements.

Indonesia’s first president, Soekarno, was the icon of independence from colonial rule, but after he died, his successors struggled to guide a new nation riven by traumas and competing political forces. They fought over who should lead, and as a result, the nation lost direction in the chaotic middle years of the 1960s.

The country has since made significant gains, notably cutting poverty rates in half and ranking tenth in the world in per-capita GDP. But an entrenched elite, including those who benefited from the Suharto era and have ties to the military, continues to exert undue influence over politics and public policy.

Joko Widodo of the PDI-P won presidential and legislative elections in April 2019, winning 55.5 percent of the vote to defeat former general Prabowo Subianto of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra). The election was largely considered free and fair by international monitors, and there were no reports of widespread fraud or vote-rigging. The new legislature, the House of Representatives (DPR), consists of 575 members elected in 34 multi-member districts, and they serve five-year terms.

Civil liberties remain limited by corruption and an overly restrictive state bureaucracy, and freedom of expression is constrained by broad and vague laws limiting assembly and association. Police reportedly engage in arbitrary arrests and detentions, and there are no effective safeguards against the use of coerced confessions in criminal cases. Local governments sometimes enact ordinances based on Islamic law that are unconstitutional and contradict Indonesia’s international human rights commitments.

An active private sector exists, though government policies can stifle innovation. Property rights are eroded by state appropriation and licensing of communally owned land to companies, which especially affects indigenous communities. Inequality in education and access to health care also persists, along with endemic corruption.

Media freedom is relatively robust, although journalists face harassment and violence while covering sensitive topics, particularly in Papua and West Papua. Foreign journalists seeking to enter these regions report bureaucratic obstacles and a climate of self-censorship. A few online news sites have been shuttered by the government, and some journalists have been intimidated or even killed.