Democracy in Indonesia is an oxymoron in the most fundamental sense: the concept of democracy was adopted as a universal principle by the western world during the period of empire, but in practice, only a small percentage of countries has fully embraced the concept of democracy. Today, democracy is practiced in more than hundred countries around the globe, with the remaining twenty-five to twenty-five percent in partial democracy. Indonesia is one of the few countries in the world that practices a high level of democracy, with a multiparty system in place since Indonesian independence in 1957. However, Indonesia has undergone a dramatic democratic breakthrough in the past decade, with the coming to power of Suharto and the moderate turn taken by the majority of Indonesian citizens during the last election. The current constitution approved in 2021 guarantees protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms and strengthens the role of the parliament as a constitutional institution. The document established by Suharto remains subject to change with subsequent elections due to take place in 2021.
However, a key feature of democracy in Indonesia is the principle of checks and balances, which ensures that the elected government is not hampered by the presence of a powerful elite or a political party that may abuse their power for personal gains. In Indonesia, as in other cases where a multiparty system of government is elected, one or perhaps two members of the legislature are appointed by the president and his/her committee. The checks and balances mechanism, therefore, ensures that elected officials do not abuse their power for personal gain. In addition, the checks and balances mechanism ensures that the government functions properly. The existence of checks and balances in a country guarantees that it is stable and that the ruling party is able to maintain a strong grip over the country. Since there are strong forces supporting different parties and competing for political power, this checks and balance ensures that the government does not fall into disarray.
After Suharto’s death, democracy in Indonesia was brought to the next level. Under president Muhamed Hendroprieti, who was named vice president and later prime minister, the system of checks and balances was strengthened further. In the next election, which took place in early 2021, the National Democratic Party (PDP) won the presidential polls and remained in power until June 2021. The moderate Islamic Party, however, was second behind the PDP in the presidential polls. After this period, there was a new leadership in the form of a constitutional assembly, known as the Barangay, which was formed to counter the growing threats from the three main political parties in Indonesia – the PPP, the NCP and the PRC.
In order for a country to have a democratic system of government, the executive and the legislative branches of government have to be functional. Unfortunately, this is yet to be achieved in Indonesia. Although the constitution guarantees free and fair presidential elections, many individuals and groups are not registered to vote, have their rights suppressed or are excluded from public service. Media is also severely restricted in terms of coverage and distribution. This is creating an environment of a censorship that is more pronounced than in any other country in Southeast Asia.
If democracy is to survive in Indonesia one must understand that it will require a fundamental change in mindset and ideals to make the transition to democracy work. The current constitution guaranteeing free and fair elections must be amended. There should be an end to the discrimination faced by minorities in terms of gender, ethnicity and religion. Basic educational and health facilities must be made available to all and political prisoners must be released and protected from ill-treatment.
A fully functional and independent national parliament is required before any meaningful changes can be seen in Indonesia. The current system of checks and balances protects citizens from abusive actions of the majority, but it is not strong enough to guarantee full democracy. In spite of this, it has been the hope of the United Nations and most analysts that Indonesia will move towards democracy eventually. It would then join the other Southeast Asian countries of the world, allying itself with the democratic ideals of mankind. Sadly, we see a few malcontents clinging to the power they feel provides them with a sense of legitimacy, rather than the freedoms and prosperity that other people of their land enjoy. These individuals must be held accountable for their actions.