Democracy in Indonesia

The election of Joko Widodo as president in 2014 was a high point for observers tracking the progress of democracy in Indonesia. He swept aside the old political elites and won a popular mandate to govern. He has built a strong economic team that has brought macroeconomic stability, and he is making good progress on professional reform of the military and police.

But these accomplishments shouldn’t mask the challenges that remain for democracy in Indonesia. The emergence of democracy in a vast, multiethnic, multireligious nation like Indonesia is a long, slow process that can only be measured in decades. And while academics and human rights activists are right to raise alarms about the country’s democratic backsliding under Jokowi, it is important not to overstate the problem.

During the transition from authoritarianism to democracy, the most significant achievement was to devolve authority to citizens, with elections used as the main channel for public participation. The introduction of direct regional elections in 2005 mitigated the legacy of Suharto’s patronage system, whereby local lawmakers rubberstamped executives selected from Jakarta. The competition of direct elections has enabled the emergence of better candidates who can appeal to voters’ policy preferences, and it has also provided a counterbalance to money politics and collusive horse-trading for votes.

This competitive electoral system, however, has not eliminated corruption and patronage in Indonesia. The armed forces retain considerable political and economic clout by tapping into rent-seeking relationships with both legitimate and illegitimate companies, as well as from their “territorial” role of maintaining a security and economic presence at the village level.

And the emergence of new leaders with grassroots networks and a more clientelist approach to politics has also undermined democracy in Indonesia by shifting power from the voters to those who can best deliver benefits to them. These leaders have largely replaced the old elites that were once dominant in regional legislatures and central government.

The next step for democracy in Indonesia must be to further strengthen institutions and rebalance power by devolving more authority to the regions. This requires a change in mindset that shifts from the belief that democracy is primarily about the attitudes of the political leaders to the recognition that democracy is a process of building trusted and resilient institutions, following established procedures, and resolving legitimate political differences through free and fair elections. This is an immense challenge, but one that can be overcome if political leaders can commit to advancing these values. The future of democracy in Indonesia depends on it. If not, the democratic gains of the past 20 years may be lost in the face of an emerging dictatorship.