Despite significant progress by Indonesian civil society groups and other reform-minded citizens, the country’s democracy remains a work in progress. Many challenges persist, including poor-quality schools, uneven health care, and the activity of radical sectarian elements. A lack of economic opportunity and a widening wealth gap also raise concerns.
In addition, a lack of political trust and a pervasive culture of corruption have left the government struggling to deliver on its commitments to Indonesia’s citizens. And the country’s police force continues to suffer from deep-rooted problems, and its human rights record is poor, with alleged instances of coerced confessions and denial of due process.
Moreover, an entrenched elite enriched by years of association with Suharto’s regime still dominates Indonesia’s economy and politics. This powerful group—including former military leaders who have taken senior government positions—has the potential to undermine the fundamental freedoms that Indonesia’s citizens deserve.
In 2004 and 2006, Indonesia’s democratization process suffered setbacks as the presidential election resulted in a return to authoritarianism. Megawati Sukarnoputri, the incumbent and a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, faced challenger Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired army general with deep roots in Suharto’s era. Neither candidate prioritized democracy, but Yudhoyono won the vote and became president.
The two presidential candidates’ connections to the tumultuous early years of the republic exemplified how entrenched power structures can thwart democratic advancement. But more importantly, the contest itself highlighted the lack of political institutions that can address competing claims on representation and resolve disputes over regionalism, social class, and religion.
Under Suharto’s New Order, regional legislatures were little more than rubber stamps for executives chosen in Jakarta, and partisan horse-trading between old elites ruled electoral politics. In the aftermath of the transition to democracy in 1998, regional legislatures gained some autonomy, but the power of local politicians to choose their regional executives remains limited by old elites’ influence over these bodies. The introduction of direct regional elections mitigated these limitations to some extent, but the system is not yet fully functional.
As a consequence, regional governments struggle to respond to the demands of their constituents and are frequently accused of violating the constitution’s human rights guarantees. Meanwhile, police reportedly engage in arbitrary arrests and detentions, particularly of protesters and those suspected of separatism or terrorism. Existing safeguards against coerced confessions remain ineffective, and there are concerns about a lack of due process in criminal cases.
The new administration of Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, pledged to address these issues, but his efforts have had mixed results. While he made history as the first modern president without direct ties to Suharto’s regime, his presidency has not yet addressed the core challenges facing Indonesian democracy. The majority of Indonesians now have the right to vote, but the substantive rights typically accorded to citizens in a democracy remain far from guaranteed. Until these issues are resolved, the democratic promise of Indonesia will remain unfulfilled.