Democracy in Indonesia

Amid the global rise of populist authoritarianism, Indonesia offers a case study in democracy that is surviving and even prospering. The world’s fourth-most populous nation has a diverse society that includes hundreds of ethnic and religious minorities, along with a vibrant civil society. Its democratic gains – from the successful transition to decentralized governance in 1998, to direct regional elections, to the first peaceful transfer of power under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2004 – are testaments to a system that can hold up to the test of time.

But it’s also true that the state has taken on an ever-greater role in directing citizens’ political choices and curtailing dissent. The country’s sweeping libel laws and its use of criminal defamation to silence critics, for example, are both widely perceived as a hindrance to democracy. The state has also stepped in to censor the press and block access to social media, which is being used by Indonesians to express opinions about their leaders.

The state’s monopoly on the dissemination of information and opinions has also created a culture of impunity for those who violate its rules. The police are frequently accused of colluding with the government to suppress critical voices, and prosecutors have abused laws on libel, hate speech, and insults to persecute dissidents.

Amid these challenges, Indonesia’s leaders and the people they govern must reassess the country’s democratic gains and find ways to protect the system. It would help if public officials understood that society and its criticisms of their work are not the enemy, but an essential part of the democratic landscape that the 1945 UUD guarantees.

In the short term, Indonesia’s current system is the best available option for maintaining its democratic gains and safeguarding its future. Repeated surveys indicate that voters value the higher quality of leadership that direct elections provide, even if they come with greater expense. Reverting to indirect regional elections, on the other hand, ignores this relative value and would also have significant economic costs.

In the longer term, illiberal forces may exploit Indonesia’s democratic weaknesses to undermine the rights of its people. But if the president and his party continue to build an alliance of support that spans liberals, centrists, and nationalists, they can preserve Indonesia’s democratic gains. If they don’t, the country could lose its place as a model of a successful democracy that can handle a wide range of policy issues in the midst of global challenges. That would be a tragic loss for the world’s largest Muslim-majority region. The writer is a professor of international relations at the University of Sydney and a nonresident senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was previously a senior research associate at the V-Dem Institute for Democracy and Development in Jakarta. He has written extensively on democracy in the region and is a co-author of Indonesia in Transition: The Politics of Change. His latest book, Democracy in Indonesia: The Road to Continuity, will be published in 2023 by Oxford University Press.