While Indonesia’s democracy is far from perfect, the country has made significant progress in recent years. In 1998, the government started a transition from authoritarian rule to democratic governance. Since that time, the country has enjoyed free elections and the influence of regional centers has increased. In 2004, the Indonesian people elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, which ushered in the first peaceful power transfer in the nation’s history.
Despite the recent transition, political parties and citizens have remained marginalized. During the previous regime, local legislatures rubberstamped decisions made by the government. In 1998, after the government under Wahid dissolved the military, regional legislators were allowed to choose regional executives. However, old elites still dominated the political process, and many citizens’ preferences were diluted by collusion and horse-trading. This has exacerbated the problem of corruption, and direct elections are the only way to restore citizen confidence in the system.
The country’s economy recovered from the New Order, and the military began enforcing health protocols. This continued until COVID-19 was implemented. The military’s dual role is difficult to reverse, and the military has a strong hand in the current system. Rollback of illiberalism will require strengthening institutions and establishing a new constitution. This will take time. There is no doubt that Indonesians want to see a new era of freedom.
The book could have conveyed the fragility of the country’s transition to democracy. It gives the impression that post-Suharto political actors made rational decisions and achieved the desired outcome through incremental constitution-making. Unfortunately, the country came close to constitutional breakdown in mid-2001, when President Abdurrahman Wahid dissolved parliament and banned a major political party, and used security forces to protect himself from an impeachment campaign.
Indonesia’s democracy is characterized by a strong popular sovereignty. While elections are held every five years, they are free and fair, despite the pitfalls of nepotism, corruption, and money-politics. The poorer sectors of the population are encouraged to vote for a particular candidate by receiving small amounts of cash at the ballot box. But money-politics still persists in Indonesia’s elections.
Demonstrations in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, were largely peaceful during September. Protesters voiced opposition to the government’s policy on Papua and proposed legislation weakening the KPK. They were also protesting against a controversial bill to restrict access to contraceptives. During the transition to democracy, student demonstrations turned violent and police officers clashed with protesters.
The current state of Indonesian democracy is in a downward spiral. Despite a low level of trust in the government, Indonesians remain generally satisfied with the Jokowi administration. Among the reasons for this is the lack of information about the government’s response to the COVID-19 scandal. While trust in the government in Indonesia has decreased since the scandal, public opinion is still high. But the longer-term trends in public opinion are not as promising.