After decades of authoritarian rule, Indonesia entered a period of reformation that began in 1998. Its transition to democracy has been marked by structural changes (such as devolution of power and limits to the president’s powers) but also continuities (such as entrenched poverty, political polarization, and the clustering of capital at society’s elite).
Although democracy in indonesia has progressed considerably since the New Order, challenges remain. Significant economic and judicial corruption, the clout of the military, and the dominance of old elites in regional legislatures limit citizens’ ability to choose their policies and hold elected officials accountable. The state’s anti-corruption bodies are often the tools of contending elites, and investigations into serious cases do not result in effective prosecutions. Indonesia’s nascent civil society has emerged as an important counterweight to these trends, bolstered by strong and growing NGOs focused on the defense of democracy and human rights.
Since the end of the Suharto era, the government has moved to decentralize power and give Indonesians more say over their daily lives by holding direct regional elections for governors, mayors, and other regional executives. These moves have been largely successful, and Indonesia has become a model for other countries in the region that want to emulate its political reforms.
The upcoming 2024 presidential election presents an opportunity for Indonesia to further strengthen its democracy by introducing more democratic mechanisms at the local level. While the government is considering a number of electoral reforms, it should move quickly to ensure that direct elections are held for mayors and governors across the country. Moreover, it should implement a comprehensive scheme to address corruption and empower civil society.
Lastly, public officials should understand that, while democracy in indonesia is guaranteed by law and institutions, the country depends on its society to provide feedback on their performance and conduct. It is vital that public officials do not view criticisms of their actions as attacks on the country, or criminalize them under laws that protect freedom of expression.
Indonesians should embrace and celebrate their democracy, but it is important to remember that a robust democracy requires vigilance. Democracy is not simply about holding free and fair elections, but about ensuring that those elections are legitimate and produce results that reflect the views of the people. This will require the full involvement of Indonesia’s society, including civil society and its NGOs, which must take an active role in protecting Indonesia’s democratic landscape from the forces that are working to undermine it.
This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of Development and Democracy. Read the full issue here. To receive our newsletter in your inbox each month, sign up here. This feature is part of a partnership between Development and Democracy and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Read our full editorial policy here.
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