Democracy in Indonesia Undermines Democracy in India and Trump-Era America

democracy in indonesia

In an era of global democratic regression, Indonesia has been hailed as a model of democracy’s resilience. Its democratic transition and persistence since the fall of authoritarianism in 1998 have been bolstered by free and fair elections, political and media pluralism, and peaceful transfers of power. But it now seems that the same forces that undermine democracy in India under Narendra Modi and Trump-era America are at work in Indonesia as well, with worrying implications for the country’s future.

In the lead-up to a crucial regional election, the government and allied parties are proposing a radical change to electoral rules. They want to revert to indirect regional elections uniformly across the vast and diverse nation, with citizens electing only their local executives rather than directly for national parliamentarians or presidential candidates. Such a move would diminish the autonomy of the 3,000 or so provincial governors, 415 district heads, and 923 mayors who govern Indonesia’s 17,000 islands and 700 languages.

The main reason for this shift is the growing popularity of Prabowo Subianto, a former general who commanded the kidnapping of democracy activists and massacre of independence fighters in East Timor during the New Order regime. He has been a persistent threat to the stability of Indonesian democracy and its democratic institutions, and his return to power would threaten the checks on presidential authority that the nation’s constitution and laws have provided.

Prabowo’s popularity has fueled fears that Indonesia is entering an era of political instability and backsliding, even though it has enjoyed a remarkable level of prosperity since its democratic transition. The authors of this essay argue that the signs of regression are clear: a rise in vigilantism, deepening political polarization, an erosion of the rule of law, dysfunctional key democratic institutions, and the politicization of key social issues, including religious freedom, women’s rights, and free speech.

Those who are concerned about Indonesia’s decline should recognize that the fate of democracy in the country will not be determined by the whims of its leaders. Rather, it depends on the actions of elites and ordinary people together: working through established institutions; following norms of mutual tolerance and forbearance; resolving legitimate political differences through a democratic process of free and fair elections; and respecting the democratic rights of all. This is the only way to guarantee the long-term sustainability of Indonesia’s democratic gains. Sana Jaffrey is a nonresident scholar in the Asia Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.