Democracy in Indonesia

As the world grapples with fractious political leaders and heightened tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, one of the few shining examples of democracy is Indonesia. The world’s third-most populous nation has transformed from the crucible of authoritarian repression to a remarkably stable democracy, even as corruption and dysfunction persist. How did this improbable transformation come about? And how is the country’s democratic system faring now that incumbent President Joko Widodo faces a challenge from a former general with a dark past?

Until recently, most observers considered Indonesia a model of democracy’s potential to survive in a global context of regression. After a quarter century of brutal dictatorship, the nation’s entrenched elites acceded to public demands for reform. And despite persistent poverty and religious and ethnic strife, Indonesia’s politics have become progressively open and competitive.

But now, with elections set to take place on February 14, 2024, the specter of a return to authoritarianism looms large in the minds of many. The election of Prabowo Subianto, a special-forces commander with a dark past, to the presidency would appear to signal disillusionment with democracy. But the truth is that Indonesians’ enthusiasm for Prabowo reflects a combination of conviction that he will uphold Jokowi’s positive economic record and implicit faith that their democratic institutions can rein in a strong-willed president.

During the campaign, both candidates appealed to established political cleavages in Indonesian society. Jokowi pushed his pluralist form of national identity, while Prabowo emphasized his military record and opportunistically tapped into popular anxiety about crime. But their success in the election is also a reflection of deepening ideological polarization, growing civic activism and eroding checks on executive power.

In the past, Indonesian presidents largely avoided electoral politics, a norm buttressed by legal limits on their campaigning. But this year, Jokowi openly stumped for both Prabowo and his nephew, Gibran, challenging longstanding interpretations of what constitutes presidential campaigning. And the Constitutional Court’s ethics council disciplined Chief Justice Anwar Usman for deciding that the constitution’s candidate minimum age provisions should be changed to allow Gibran to run for vice president.

These episodes point to a dangerous trend: Indonesia’s democratic institutions are slowly withering, just as in Trump-era America or Narendra Modi’s India. The contributors to this volume examine the signs of decline: arbitrary state crackdowns on freedom of speech and organization, the rise of vigilantism, a deepening of social and political divisions, and the dysfunction of key democratic institutions. They ask: Why is Indonesia, once a model of “democratic exceptionalism,” now conforming to the dispiriting global pattern of democracy in retreat? What can be done to reverse this course?