The Limits of Democracy in Indonesia

democracy in indonesia

Indonesians are preparing to vote in a presidential election that takes place against a backdrop of increasing democratic fragility. The telltale signs include a government increasingly uninterested in public opinion and adept at inhibiting dissent, changes to electoral rules designed to tilt the playing field for favored candidates and so-called “nepo babies,” and attempts by legislators to dismantle key sources of accountability.

These developments are particularly troubling for the country’s democracy advocates, many of whom have long hoped to see the emergence of a robust middle class and a government that can effectively tackle entrenched social challenges like high poverty rates, uneven health and educational services, and the activity of radical sectarian groups. In the years since President Jokowi’s victory in a 2014 direct election, Indonesia has indeed demonstrated some of the hallmarks of a maturing democracy, including macroeconomic stability, a lively parliament, and progress on professional reform in the army and police forces.

The political system’s weaknesses, however, are a constant reminder of the limits of democracy in a society with shifting coalitions and distributed power centers. While some observers fear that Prabowo will take advantage of this structure to expand his sphere of influence, the reality is that he will struggle to bend a system designed to make it hard for individual leaders to amass too much power to his own ends.

For example, the switch to direct regional elections allowed Indonesian voters to select local executives who do most of the day-to-day governing and have made a tangible difference in their communities. As a result, some of the country’s most popular politicians started their careers as regional executives and are now nationally recognized because of their administrative skills. This system has also defused potentially polarizing identity-based divisions by providing incentives for parties to form governing coalitions across ideological lines in pursuit of electoral victory and access to state resources.

In contrast, patronage-based politics weakens democracy by rewarding elites for sacrificing democratic institutions and norms in the interest of political expediency while complacent citizens watch helplessly. This is the current trend in democracy worldwide, as seen most notably in India under Narendra Modi and in Trump-era America.

If Indonesians want to avert the threat of such decline, they need to re-engage in political activism and focus on promoting civic participation, building democratic institutions, and ensuring electoral integrity. This requires not only an active citizenry, but a more mature one that understands that democracy is not something that happens to a nation but rather a process that must be actively guarded and nurtured by its citizens. This task falls largely on Indonesia’s civil society organizations, who must develop a compelling political message and viable electoral alternatives to the dominant party system in order to preserve Indonesia’s democracy. If not, the country may be headed for a cliff’s edge in its two-decade-long march toward greater democracy.