The Indonesian political system is essentially democratic, though the country still has some challenges. The constitution guarantees freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, and civil society groups are active. However, government-sponsored NGOs sometimes face pressure from state actors to toe the line on politically sensitive issues. Freedom of assembly is generally respected, but assemblies addressing sensitive topics such as the 1965-66 massacres in West Papua or regional separatism are often dispersed by police or vigilantes, and some activists have faced intimidation. The media environment is vibrant, but laws restrict the publication of documents that could be considered libelous. The 2008 Law on Electronic Information and Transactions (known as UU ITE) extended libel to online media, and journalists can face arrest for reporting on allegedly defamatory matters. The government provides free legal representation to indigent defendants, and trials are open to the public except for sharia court proceedings in Aceh and some military tribunals.
The electoral process is relatively competitive, and the country has four major parties that compete in both legislative and presidential elections. Women enjoy full political rights and have a good record of participation in party politics, although they remain underrepresented in leadership positions. In 2019, two new parties with ethnic Chinese leaders contested the elections, but both parties failed to cross the 4-percent threshold for earning seats. The economy is strong, but inequality is growing and half of the population lives below the poverty line. Poor infrastructure and inadequate health care and education facilities create social stresses, and the activities of radical sectarian elements are a concern.
A legacy of elite loyalty to Suharto’s New Order regime remains, and the country’s old ruling clique continues to wield great influence. This legacy limits the effectiveness of vertical accountability mechanisms such as elections and term limits. At the same time, democracy has developed a powerful instrumental logic, and elites safeguard elections and presidential term limits not because they believe in the value of these principles but as convenient tools for structuring elite competition and preventing potentially destabilising elite splits.
Despite these limitations, the country has made important advances toward the political and economic goals of its founders. Unlike many other countries, Indonesia has a long history of democratic transitions and governance. However, the current system is prone to corruption and a lack of political will, and this hinders progress in key reform areas.
Nevertheless, Indonesia’s institutions and traditions of democracy are robust, and the vast majority of citizens support the concept in principle. A broad civil society is well organized, and the country boasts a vibrant, diverse media environment. Nevertheless, the reach of impactful activism is limited by the digital divide, and the capacity of civil society organisations to challenge the status quo has not yet grown beyond the middle class. The government should increase the accessibility of public records and expand freedom to information laws, and the military should reduce its involvement in politics. This would allow the civilian leadership to move more rapidly and effectively on its priority policy initiatives.