In the decades since Suharto fell, Indonesia has made remarkable progress in building democracy, with a free press, multiple competing political parties and new leaders elected every five years. The country’s per capita income, freedom of association and the strength of a vibrant civil society also have improved. The question is whether these trends will hold up in the future.
Currently, the country is experiencing a crisis that threatens to derail the democratic gains of the past two decades. An entrenched elite with ties to the old regime, weak economic development, unequal health and education services and the activity of radical sectarian elements are creating a powerful undercurrent that may destabilize the system.
To counter these challenges, scholars have identified a number of key factors that contribute to the durability of democracies: a strong separation of religion and politics; clear ideological alignment between voters and politicians; and the existence of clearly identifiable opposing partisan camps with distinct identities and goals. Though Indonesia scores highly in all of these areas, the country still has a way to go to become a consolidated democracy.
A significant problem is the absence of a cohesive opposition that could function as a check on executive power. The only force capable of forming such a group is an assertive Islamist bloc that would likely clash with the secularism favored by most members of Indonesia’s elite class. This puts the country in a difficult position, in which it must weigh a desire to consolidate liberal values against the necessity of strengthening democratic representation and accountability.
The other key issue is a weakness in the rule of law. While the government’s record on corruption and rule of law enforcement has improved, the country is plagued by endemic corruption at local and regional levels. Many of these problems stem from the direct election of regional executives, which allows citizens to vote directly for their region’s governors, district heads and mayors. The practice has resulted in a system that is more prone to vote-buying than indirect elections in other longstanding democracies such as Australia, India and the United Kingdom.
Lastly, the emergence of a handful of militant Islamic groups has undermined Indonesia’s traditionally tolerant civil society. These groups have ties to the military and engage in violence against religious and secular groups, as well as private citizens, who are accused of failing to adhere to strict religious precepts. As a result, many Indonesians believe that their civil liberties are under threat and report feeling less safe than they did in the past. In the end, it will be up to civil society groups to ensure that the democratic gains of the past two decades are not eroded by an emerging authoritarian threat. But unless these groups can develop a coherent and compelling message that is capable of being heard by the general public, they are unlikely to be able to prevent the erosion of the democratic fabric in which the country has invested so much.