Democracy in Indonesia

The Indonesian government and parliament are working on an umbrella law that promises a fundamental overhaul of the country’s electoral rules. One of the more radical measures under consideration is to scrap a system of direct regional elections that empowers citizens to vote directly for their local executives, who do most of the day-to-day governing in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. These officials include thirty-three provincial governors, 415 district heads, and ninety-three mayors.

Direct regional elections are a key ingredient of democracy in countries that have long-standing democracies. They provide citizens with an opportunity to vote for those who do the work of governing, and they enable the electorate to identify and punish poor performers. However, they are not inherently more democratic than the indirect polling systems used for local executive positions in long-standing democracies like Australia, India, and the United Kingdom. Indirect elections do not require political parties to vet candidates, and they do not encourage a clear ideological platform for their members.

On the other hand, direct regional elections are a powerful mechanism for mobilizing voter enthusiasm and bolstering popular confidence in democratic institutions. They also promote a sense of civic responsibility among voters, as they are required to cast ballots in all elections. This is particularly important for voters who have little interest in or connection with their national leaders.

Aside from the need for better vetting of candidates and discipline of non-performing party officials, Indonesia’s electoral system suffers from corruption, nepotism, and money-politics that can sway the outcome of an election. For instance, poorer segments of the population are sometimes enticed to vote for a presidential candidate by being handed small amounts of cash at the polling booth.

Nonetheless, most of the country’s voters appear to be free from extrapolitical dominance. The military remains influential, with former commanders playing prominent roles in politics and President Joko Widodo appointing several of them to his cabinet. Civil liberties are constrained by broad, vaguely worded laws that limit freedom of expression and assembly, and local Sharia-based ordinances restrict public displays of affection and impose restrictions on dress and gambling.

The country’s economic and social development have been impressive, but poverty persists, and 10 percent of the population is described as at risk of falling below the poverty line. Meanwhile, a growing number of Indonesians are disillusioned with their leaders.

The country’s democratic experiment has largely succeeded, but the Indonesian political landscape is increasingly polarized and volatile. The old Islamic-pluralist divide that dominated under Yudhoyono has become sharper, and Jokowi’s rapprochement with rival Prabowo Subianto is unlikely to ease it. Moreover, a wide range of state and nonstate elements continue to obstruct corruption investigations and harass their accusers. As a result, democratic stability is at serious risk.