Democracy in Indonesia

democracy in indonesia

The transition to democracy after the New Order era, known as reformasi, has been a story of progress and resilience. Public trust in institutions such as parliament and courts has been rebuilt, corruption rooted out, and the military has undergone limited structural and cultural reforms. Indonesia boasts a robust civil society, a free and active press, and many political parties competing for popular support. Its citizens are generally able to participate freely in elections, and it is widely accepted that these constitute the sole legitimate path to political power.

But Indonesia is not immune to democratic backsliding. The stagnation that characterized Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s second term as president gave way to a more far-reaching pattern of democratic regression under his successor, Joko Widodo. In the last few months, presidential and ruling-party elites have been accelerating this slide by implementing measures that will diminish democratic space.

One of the most important of these is a proposal to revert to indirect regional elections throughout the country, arguing that voters in certain regions are not competent enough to elect their own leaders. This solution is deeply flawed on several fronts. First, it misdiagnoses the root causes of Indonesia’s underperforming local governance. Rather than a lack of competency, the main issue is that Indonesia’s political parties are ill-equipped to vet competent candidates and connect with voters in an era of escalating campaign spending. Moreover, parties often auction nominations for regional elections to raise operational funds.

Another problem is that the proposal overlooks the importance of empowering different communities to participate in the political process. This is especially crucial in a nation of more than 17,000 islands where regional and local identities are central to Indonesian culture and identity. It would also deprive indigenous communities and other minorities of the chance to directly choose their own leaders.

Lastly, the plan would weaken civil-military balances by allowing former military commanders to play prominent roles in politics without explicitly entrenching ideas that they must submit to democratic civilian authority. Although Indonesia’s civil-military divide is rarely clear cut, it will be difficult to reverse the trend toward militarization under Jokowi, as he continues to appoint military figures to key posts and enlists them in domestic security duties that exacerbate their influence and perception of superiority over civilians.

Ultimately, a return to the illiberal politics of the 1950s and 1960s could prove disastrous for Indonesia. This is why it is so important to strengthen democratic institutions, including a strong civilian bureaucracy, independent judiciary, and free and active civil society, while at the same time continuing to expand economic opportunity and social welfare. Unless these conditions are met, the potential for democratic backsliding in Indonesia will continue to grow and put Indonesia’s long-term development at risk. This is why it’s so vital to support the government as it moves forward on its ambitious agenda for the future.