The fall of Suharto in 1998 marked the beginning of Indonesia’s democratic transition. The country’s parliamentary and direct elections since then have proceeded without significant violence or voting irregularities, and the constitution guarantees freedom of association for competing political parties. The country also has a functioning ombudsman office and independent media. Nevertheless, the Indonesian government is increasingly illiberal and authoritarian, a trend reflected in the country’s falling global ranking on the Economist Group’s Democracy Index.
This shift is largely due to President Jokowi’s policies, but also reflects the Indonesian military’s culture and its territorial structure. While formal legislative changes have moved the military out of politics and into a traditional security role, older officers and a culture of discipline have firmly entrenched the army’s mindset as the “people’s army,” a self-proclaimed guardian of national sovereignty. A strong civilian bureaucracy, a free and active press, and respect for civil liberties are essential to roll back some of this illiberalism.
While the governing coalition is weakening, Jokowi’s popularity remains high. His humble, non-elite, and non-military background lent him popular appeal, and his anti-corruption policies and can-do track record in local government raised expectations, both inside and outside the country, that he would launch a reformist wave at the national level. However, his economic policies and his ties to the religious right have encouraged more illiberal elements in Indonesian society.
Moreover, the country’s centralized system of power privileges efficiency over citizens’ rights. While the country’s electoral system presents voters with a narrow bandwidth of candidate quality, Indonesian voters have proven their ability to identify competent leaders and punish non-performing officials.
As the world faces rising threats from Islamic extremism, Indonesia must maintain its commitment to democracy. In addition to limiting its ties to radical sectarian groups, the government should open its borders and allow international observers to monitor human rights conditions in its western provinces, where widespread ethnic cleansing and what knowledgeable observers have called a creeping genocide are occurring.
Edmund McWilliams is a retired senior Foreign Service officer who served in the U.S. embassies in Bishkek, Dushanbe, Jakarta, Moscow, and Kabul. Since retiring from the Foreign Service, he has volunteered with a number of U.S. and international human rights nongovernmental organizations in Indonesia and elsewhere. He dedicated this article to the memory of Isa Gartini, who worked tirelessly with local Indonesian civil society to improve observance of human rights and promote democratization. He is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.