Indonesia: A Democracy in Good Health

democracy in indonesia

After decades of authoritarian rule, the fall of Suharto in 1998 signalled the start of a new period of reform and change known as the Reformation. Among the changes is decentralization and the separation of presidential power from other branches of government. Another is a move towards a more democratic political-social environment characterized by greater participation in the political process. Despite these structural changes, the post-Suharto era is not without its challenges, including the persistence of corruption, poverty, and the concentration of capital at society’s elite.

At first glance, Indonesia seems a democracy in good health. The nation has a long history of electoral participation and, with one exception (when the military refused to obey the orders of President Abdurrahman Wahid to disarm) the transitions of national leadership have been conducted without violence. Indonesia’s parliamentary and direct elections are generally regarded as free and fair. The national police and Election Supervisory Body collaborate to prevent vote-buying, intimidation, and other forms of electoral fraud ahead of and during elections. Moreover, the government is developing normative plans and statements demonstrating its commitment to democratic consolidation, such as an initiative to build an electoral vulnerability index, campaigns that encourage voting, and the monitoring of voter behavior during and after elections.

But there are also signs of regression and erosion of democratic habits. For example, the government’s plan to revert to indirect regional elections is a profound course reversal. It will deny voters a say in assessing the competence of their local executives and weaken an important source of accountability for governance. Furthermore, it will further marginalize the poorest regions of the country and entrench the interests of a narrow elite that benefitted from its ties with Suharto’s regime.

Other examples of deterioration include the failure to ensure basic public services, a lack of respect for women’s rights, and the continued presence of radical sectarian groups. While the Indonesian economy has been growing rapidly, half of the population lives in poverty and there are concerns about the quality of education and healthcare.

Nonetheless, there are reasons for hope. The popular if goofy President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has shown himself less committed to pursuing authoritarian tactics than many other heads of state in the region. He is less concerned with smearing the media, intimidating NGOs, or threatening to abolish repressive laws. Instead, he is more likely to be found shoring up support by building rural infrastructure or handing out push bikes to children.

Ultimately, however, it will take more than a focus on elections and bureaucratic reform to consolidate Indonesia’s democracy. The country must create a democratic habit of practice that extends beyond polling booths and parliamentary halls, and includes the Indonesian people. Otherwise, the country will continue to resemble an unstable democracy that only pays lip service to normative plans for democratic consolidation. Sana Jaffrey is a nonresident scholar in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research focuses on the role of religion in contemporary Southeast Asia and the evolution of the Islamic state in Indonesia.