Democracy in Indonesia

The world’s third-largest democracy is gearing up for a marathon election. On Feb. 14, 2024, Indonesians will choose national, provincial, and district parliamentary representatives in one of the largest single-day elections ever. The vote will also test the country’s presidential system and bolster or erode citizens’ confidence in the capacity of political and judicial institutions to check executive power. It will be the first test of President Joko Widodo’s ability to manage a governing coalition and oversee a complex bureaucracy with significant power-sharing obligations.

But while the scale of the elections and the vigor of political campaigning would suggest a vibrant democracy, this is not a moment to declare victory. Many citizens face serious challenges: insufficient public services, high and rising prices for basic goods, persistent unemployment, and low growth rates. Others are worried about racial and religious discrimination, the prevalence of violent and criminal elements within society, and growing threats to press freedom.

Despite the challenges, democratic progress in indonesia continues apace. The April 2019 legislative election, for example, reflected a more pluralistic politics than previous contests and the electoral system has been largely reformed. The country has a robust and varied media environment, though some laws restrict journalists’ freedoms and some communities have suffered from harassment. The military retains considerable influence and former commanders are increasingly prominent in politics, allowing them to shape policy and shape public discourse. The military’s history with corruption has also raised concerns.

In the presidential race, incumbent Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi) and his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle won 55.5 percent of the vote, outpacing his rival, former general Prabowo Subianto of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra). Jokowi’s two presidential campaigns promoted a moderate form of Indonesian nationalism centered on effective governance, morality in politics, and economic development, while Prabowo, drawing from his military record, focused on law-and-order themes and opportunistically appealed to hardline Islamist elements.

While these factors will make it difficult for a new president to govern, it is unclear whether they will be sufficient to derail Indonesia’s democratization process and, if not, when. If, as polls indicate, Prabowo wins, he will face widespread doubts about the capacity of democratic institutions to hold him and other elected officials accountable.

A more worrisome trend has been the use of the government’s popularity to dismantle sources of democratic accountability. For instance, in September 2019, the parliament passed a law gutting the country’s highly respected anti-corruption agency. By denying voters a direct say in evaluating and punishing incompetent executives, this measure weakens an essential source of democratic control. This is a major course reversal that calls into question the extent to which Indonesian voters really are in full control of their governments.