During the post-Suharto era, Indonesia experienced significant democratic transitions at the national and regional levels. The repressive regimes of the former dictatorship were replaced with reforms that decentralized power to the regions and limit the power of the presidency. The country’s economy grew rapidly and poverty declined, but economic and political stability were still fragile.
The armed forces continued to play a critical role in politics and society, with the military often retaining control over local officials. They were also involved in corruption and other human rights violations that are rarely publicly acknowledged.
Politics at the provincial and local levels have not been as democratic as elections at the national level, but they have been held more independently than before. A recent study by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance found that the political systems of provinces and cities have been much more responsive to the needs of their citizens than those at the national level.
As a result, many provinces have remained relatively stable over time. However, other regions have suffered severe political upheavals. In East Java, a conservative governor was ousted by a triumvirate of Islamic leaders in 2014. The governor’s replacement by an Islamist politician was also controversial.
Indonesia has a vibrant and diverse media environment, but legal and regulatory restrictions restrict press freedom. In the past decade, the government has enacted laws that expand libel to online media and criminalize the distribution or accessibility of documents or information that are “contrary to moral norms of Indonesia,” including gambling, blackmail or defamation.
In some areas, journalists have been arrested for legitimate reporting or coverage of sensitive issues. Other news outlets have been subject to censorship and other forms of violence, including threats, intimidation, and the use of force against staff.
The Indonesian constitution grants the government and the legislature a wide range of powers, but it also places important limits on the executive. The president must be elected through direct elections, and the legislature must be a non-partisan body.
Elections are conducted by the General Elections Commission (KPU), which is an independent body. The KPU has the power to overturn election results if they do not comply with the law or the Constitution.
Although the KPU has made great strides in improving the conduct of elections, it continues to be criticized for the lack of transparency and accountability. The agency is viewed as too politically and economically oriented, and is often used by politicians to raise campaign funds rather than serve voters’ interests.
Voters’ preferences for electoral systems vary, but direct elections are favored by most. Repeated surveys indicate that a majority of Indonesians support preserving direct elections, and more than six-in-ten are in favor of continuing with the current system “no matter what the cost.”
The government is considering options for changing the system to make it less costly. One option is to return to the practice of conducting indirect regional polls uniformly across the country, but a second would develop an asymmetric system that allows direct elections in regions where voters are considered competent to make responsible decisions and revert to the indirect system in regions that do not have the resources or capacity to carry out such a responsibility.