In the 20 years since its emergence as an open, multiparty democracy, Indonesia has enjoyed free and mostly transparent national elections. Its transition from authoritarian rule has, with one notable exception in 2001, proceeded smoothly and without violence. However, the democratic experiment remains fragile. A powerful elite that benefited from long associations with Suharto’s regime continues to dominate politics and economic life, while the political opposition is weak.
While the country has made progress in eliminating poverty, it has not eliminated inequality or even come close to closing the wealth gap. A significant number of citizens remain economically vulnerable and the activities of radical sectarian elements threaten to destabilize society.
Amid the turbulence, President Joko Widodo has sought to reassert his control over the state apparatus and widen his political power. He has moved to limit the role of the independent institutions that are the basis for good governance and ensure fair and free elections, including the electoral commission and the supreme court. He has also expanded his veto power over legislation, a move that has been widely condemned by observers.
The government’s attempt to change the constitution and reclaim some presidential power was roundly rejected in a popular referendum, but its supporters are pushing ahead with other reforms that have critics concerned. They include plans to revert to indirect regional elections, which were used under the New Order regime, and to restore the upper house of parliament as the highest legislative body.
Indirect election rules privilege old elites over voters and enable collusive horse-trading for votes among parties, diminishing the impact of policy preferences and reducing the ability of voters to identify and punish non-performing leaders. Indirect elections were introduced as part of the democratization process but, in practice, they do not offer a genuine choice for citizens.
A largely vibrant media environment in Indonesia offers some protections for journalists, but legal and regulatory restrictions still restrict freedom of expression. The 2008 Law on Electronic Information and Transactions criminalizes the distribution or accessibility of information that is considered “contrary to moral norms of Indonesia” or that involves gambling, blackmail, or defamation. The monopoly on the distribution of news and information by state-owned companies is a source of criticism, especially when their news coverage favors the interests of the government and the governing party.
A weak civil society is unable to challenge predatory interests or change the balance of power, and the ability of ordinary citizens to establish businesses and own property is constrained by bureaucratic red tape and corruption. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have limited capacity to protect human rights and promote good governance, and their funding depends on donors whose agendas often conflict with those of the government. The government has also restricted the freedom of universities to conduct research, with a 2021 presidential regulation declaring that the national philosophy, Pancasila, must guide their research and innovation policies. This has raised concerns that authorities will try to restrict research that is not in line with official ideology.