The Fragile State of Democracy in Indonesia

Since the fall of Suharto’s New Order regime in 1998, Indonesia has made impressive democratic gains, including political and media pluralism and peaceful transfers of power. But the country remains fragile, particularly in a number of regions. It suffers from widespread corruption, discrimination against minority groups, conflict in Papua and the politicized use of defamation and blasphemy laws. Its poverty rate has been cut in half but it still lingers above the international poverty line, while its inequality is a growing concern.

The country’s democracy is not as consolidated as its repeated elections suggest. In particular, the rule of law is not always upheld, and electoral rules are malleable. The country’s institutions must be strengthened to bolster a democracy that is able to sustain itself through the normal rotation of power via free and fair elections and the application of established procedures and governing norms.

A robust and stable democracy will require strong institutions that can ensure the freedoms of all citizens, a judiciary independent of the executive and state, and a parliament whose members are elected through open, competitive and transparent elections. It will also require robust checks and balances to ensure the government does not abuse its powers or interfere with the rights of individual citizens. This requires a strong civil society and the ability of nongovernmental organizations to operate freely and without fear of reprisal.

Indonesia’s constitutional framework and institutions are broadly sound, but a number of weaknesses have emerged. One is the oversized and disproportionate nature of legislative coalitions, in which a president is required to form a governing coalition composed of at least three legislative parties that hold seats in the national legislature. Such a requirement is not consistent with democratic principles and results in governing coalitions that function like cartels rather than regular legislative coalitions.

Another weakness is the reliance on a single party in the presidency and legislature, which reduces competition for the office and leads to stagnation of policymaking. Moreover, the president’s authority is limited by a complex legal and constitutional system that makes him dependent on the approval of the parliament and legislative assemblies to exercise his or her duties. This limits the president’s ability to act independently and erodes the integrity of the Constitution.

There is a risk that the country’s weakened democracy will revert to authoritarian measures as Jokowi steps down and his successor, Prabowo Subianto, takes the reins of government. Already, many academics, activists and students are raising concerns about the president’s alleged efforts to coopt democratic institutions. For example, he is reportedly pressuring the Constitutional Court to change its ruling on the age limit for presidential and vice-presidential candidates, allowing his son Gibran to run alongside Prabowo in 2024. This would violate the spirit of democracy that the country has fought for and undermine democratic legitimacy. It is also inconsistent with the principle that laws should be made and enforced by the parliament and courts.