Amid the chaos and violence of World War II, Indonesia’s nationalist leader Sukarno inspired his countrymen with patriotic rhetoric to resist Dutch attempts to regain control. Amid the optimism of this newfound independence, a constitution was drafted in 1945 that enshrined democratic aspirations. A formal separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government was established. In 1955, a national election was held for parliament and the presidency. The sweeping reforms that followed the election of Sukarno’s successor, President Abdurrahman Wahid, created the conditions for an Indonesia with strong institutions and broad popular participation in civic life.
The Indonesian electoral process continues to improve with each passing election, and elections at the local and regional level are largely free and fair by international standards. Foreign observers have consistently reported improvements in electoral management, including reductions in vote-buying and intimidation. The system of pilkada serentak, whereby voters select their own regional and district representatives in indirect elections and the national legislature elects a president and vice president, has been effective at increasing voter engagement and promoting good governance.
While the legal framework for political parties and competitive groupings is broadly democratic, party competition in Indonesia remains limited by strict funding rules and a requirement that new parties undergo a lengthy fact-checking process. In addition, election laws tend to favor large parties by increasing eligibility requirements for candidacy and raising ballot-box thresholds.
Nevertheless, many analysts have lauded the consolidation and stability of Indonesian democracy and have credited it to the country’s vibrant civil society. But the same analysis also suggests that it is difficult for non-governmental actors to create change when they face a government that does not seek their input and a state that remains adept at inhibiting dissent.
Although a robust private sector exists, it is vulnerable to corruption and government-owned enterprises dominate a number of sectors. In some cases, state-owned companies reportedly abuse land rights, with indigenous communities and ethnic Chinese in Yogyakarta particularly affected. A substantial percentage of the population lives below the poverty line, and social protections such as child care and health coverage are inadequate.
The legal system is largely independent, but corruption and other problems mar the efficiency of the judiciary. Judicial decisions can be influenced by religious considerations, and due process is violated in some cases, especially during interrogation of suspects. Police also engage in arbitrary arrests and detention, and existing safeguards against coerced confessions are sometimes not enforced. Indonesians’ personal social freedoms are generally respected, but freedom of religion is constrained by restrictions on non-Muslim worship. The country also has a well-functioning informal economy, with the labor market providing opportunities for millions of Indonesians. In addition, the country has a strong educational system that includes a broad range of vocational training. In the future, these strengths can be bolstered by strengthening policies that promote economic mobility and technological education. The country also must invest in infrastructure, including better roads and public transportation.