Is Indonesia a Democracy?

Amid a wave of authoritarian regimes in the 1990s, Indonesia underwent reform that shifted political power from elites to voters and devolved governance. The change to direct regional elections, for example, has enabled local governments to build public trust by delivering good service and addressing local needs. It also has made it possible for many of today’s most popular politicians to emerge from the ranks of local government, where they can develop administrative skills and prove their competence to voters.

Direct regional elections haven’t necessarily proved more democratic than the indirect ballots used in long-standing democracies. Instead, they may have served as an entry point for new types of politicians who can appeal to voters by promising more efficient and effective governance. They can then use their success in local politics to make a name for themselves nationally and eventually rise to national prominence. Some of today’s most popular politicians in Indonesia, including President Jokowi, started their careers as regional executives.

Yet Indonesia has failed to meet many of the civil requirements that scholars deem essential for a democracy. The country has not guaranteed freedom of religion and does not protect civil rights or ensure judicial independence. The police are known to engage in arbitrary arrests, and a number of districts and provinces have ordinances that violate Indonesia’s international human rights commitments. There are also instances of corruption in the courts, and judicial decisions can be influenced by religious considerations.

Furthermore, while Indonesia has a vibrant and diverse media environment, the 2008 Law on Electronic Information and Transactions (known as UU ITE) extended criminal penalties for libel to online content and restricted journalists’ access to public records. It has also restricted freedom of expression through other means, including extending a law that bans the dissemination of communist symbols or propaganda to social media.

Indonesia’s failure to guarantee the full range of civil rights that scholars consider central to a democracy has contributed to the emergence of an instrumental view of democracy that emphasizes the value of political participation and good governance rather than the protection of individual liberty. While this approach has the advantage of focusing on concrete policy outcomes, it runs the risk of undermining the robust checks and balances that are necessary for democracy’s ultimate success.

In the end, the question of whether Indonesia is a democracy will be decided not just by the electoral process but by how well it delivers policies that improve people’s lives. The most important test will be how effectively the Indonesian government delivers on its promise of prosperity for all. Jokowi’s leadership is an encouraging sign that Indonesia is on the right track. But he will need to overcome the barriers that remain if Indonesia is to become what the author of this article calls a “reformed and consolidated” democracy.