Indonesia is a country of 260 million people with the tenth-largest economy in the world. It is a democratic state that has been hailed as a model for others. During its twentieth-century history, the country achieved significant gains. Among those were the elimination of poverty and increasing per capita gross domestic product. However, the World Bank has found that the nation’s wealth gap is growing. In addition, the country faces many of the same challenges it faced 20 years ago.
Since 1998, Indonesia has experienced steady progress toward democracy. The nation has reduced its poverty rate to half its former level. However, the country continues to face numerous challenges, including the polarization of politics, the erosion of checks and balances on executive power, and a growing threat of vigilantism. These challenges have left its political elite vulnerable to both social pressures and political cleavages.
Politically, Indonesia has been divided between Islamic and pluralist factions. Several nongovernmental organizations have worked to strengthen the country’s human rights standards and defend democracy. Some of these efforts have failed, however. For example, a recent rapprochement between Jokowi and Prabowo has done little to ease divisions between the Islamist and pluralist camps. Moreover, many laws restrict freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. This trend is reminiscent of the Suharto era.
In the wake of the fall of Suharto in 1998, Indonesia entered a period of transition. A new generation of young leaders began to rise. But this group, known as the ‘generation of 66’, lacked political experience. Their polarizing messages began to gain traction with the electorate. At the same time, the regime’s privileged class believed that the new system was incompatible with economic development.
As Indonesia enters its third decade of democracy, a number of issues are at stake. These include the role of the military in politics, the threat of populism, and the weakening of key democratic institutions. Additionally, the government’s recent decision to ban the activities of radical Islamic groups threatens to deepen the country’s political polarization.
Indonesia’s political elites have benefited from the power of the armed forces. Consequently, the nation’s military elite has also benefited from the prevailing socioreligious cleavages. Ultimately, they see the country’s democratic pretensions as a threat to national unity. And in order to preserve the state’s monopoly on power, the military has adapted its political strategy.
The military has sought to cut across the socioreligious cleavages. This has been particularly effective in the context of West Papua, where a small armed movement targets corporations exploiting the country’s rich economic resources. They are also able to use social pressures to exert their influence. Despite these challenges, the military’s continued presence in Indonesian society has created an environment that encourages a hybridized interpretation of democracy.
Another important aspect of Indonesia’s post-Suharto era is its reliance on patronage. This has served as an effective incentive for cooperation across ideological lines. However, it has also led to the weakening of democratic institutions. Furthermore, the polarization of Indonesia’s political landscape has created an environment that is both vulnerable to both social pressures and political cloaking.