The Challenges of Democracy in Indonesia

Indonesia is a country where political parties and individuals compete in parliamentary and presidential elections every five years. Since the fall of the New Order under Suharto in 1998, Indonesia has experienced a period of liberalization and democratization known as reformasi (literally: “reform” or “reformulation”).

During this period, the government has allowed greater freedom of speech and a more open political-social environment. However, despite these improvements, a number of challenges remain.

First, vertical accountability mechanisms are still relatively weak, which makes it difficult to punish or oust an unpopular president. Moreover, candidates have to compete to burnish their track records and prove themselves worthy of the presidency. This has made it more difficult for voters to choose competent leaders who have a genuine desire to improve their communities.

Second, horizontal accountability mechanisms are also weakened, which is problematic because they prevent the government from acting unilaterally against its citizens’ preferences. Consequently, a president may exercise executive power in ways that conflict with what the people want. This could be a sign of corruption or the misuse of state resources.

Third, the purely utilitarian view of elections articulated by government and party officials privileges bureaucratic efficiency over citizens’ rights. This is particularly true at the lower levels of government where local governments are often dominated by vested interests and ineffective institutions.

Fourth, money-politics is common in Indonesia, which is not free of corrupt practices or nepotism. For example, poorer Indonesians may be “encouraged” to vote for a specific candidate by handing them small amounts of money on election day.

Fifth, the state’s ability to investigate and prosecute abuses remains limited. Although the national human rights commission has been created, it does not have the formal powers of investigation or subpoena power that are essential for effective judicial action.

Six-in-ten or more Indonesians say they are likely to take political action on a range of issues, but only a small share have actually done so. Majorities have not attended an election campaign event or voted in a past election, and few are prepared to participate in political protests.

Seven-in-ten or more Indonesians would also be likely to post their thoughts about politics or social issues on a social media platform. The only exception is voting: a majority of Indonesians surveyed have voted in the past year or more, and a similar share said they would be likely to vote in the future.

Civil society actors can play a critical role in defending and implementing Indonesia’s democratic gains, but they face a government that is increasingly uninterested in heeding public opinion and a state that remains adept at inhibiting dissent. They are also hampered by an ineffective judiciary that has yet to bring credible charges against the country’s most prominent figures.

The upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019 represent an opportunity to renew Indonesia’s commitment to a democracy based on the rule of law. But if the current administration continues to backtrack on governance reform and hobbles the independent Anti-Corruption Commission, Indonesia’s democratic gains are likely to be undermined further.