The Next Test for Indonesian Democracy

The next big test for Indonesia’s democracy is an enormous one: On 17 April, 193 million people will enter hundreds of thousands of polling stations across the vast archipelago to elect a new national parliament, provincial and district legislatures, and local governments. It is the world’s largest single-day election.

Twenty-two years after the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship, the country’s democratic institutions have largely proven to be durable. The most important pillars of this infrastructure are the nation’s free, fair elections and its independent judiciary. But the democratic system has also been strengthened by the growth of civic activism and an array of nongovernmental organizations focused on democracy and human rights.

These civic groups have made their presence felt both inside and outside the ballot box, with citizens willing to protest when politicians fail to uphold economic development, social pluralism or democracy’s survival. And they have pushed the government to embrace deeper democracy through public consultations. Unfortunately, these civic groups have not always been respected, with journalists and publishers routinely subjected to extrajudicial threats or intimidation and NGOs relegated to a marginal role.

Another pillar is the country’s independent judiciary, which has proven to be a formidable force in combating corruption. The Indonesian Supreme Court and the Corruption Eradication Commission are two of the most robust and active bodies in the world. Yet this system has been under pressure, with prosecutors increasingly under the control of entrenched interests like business and religion and police frequently implicated in violence and intimidation.

Then there’s the political class: Indonesia’s established parties, Golkar and Megawati, have adapted to democracy. Their most important reform was the abolition of Suharto’s presidential veto, which paved the way for Habibie’s election in 1999 and later, Abdurrahman Wahid’s, as well as the subsequent transitions to civilian rule. Moreover, no Indonesian president has sought to reverse the democratic experiment and restore military rule, as has happened in neighboring Thailand and Burma.

For all its flaws and weaknesses, Indonesian democracy is a global model worth defending. It is a model that can inspire confidence in weak democracies and help those struggling to break out of autocracy that they are not at the point where everything is lost. It makes little sense for aspiring democracies to seek out some shining democratic city atop a hill: Rather, they should take lessons from loose analogues that can teach them how to make their own way up the mountain.

It is time for the Indonesian government to start acting on its normative plans for a more consolidated democracy, particularly those that entail expanding the democratic space beyond elections. Indonesia’s citizens deserve a government that is committed to democracy’s survival and that genuinely welcomes the challenge of governing under its conditions. It is up to Indonesian voters to hold the country’s politicians accountable, no matter how much they talk about embracing a deeper democracy. If they don’t, their days in office could be numbered. Fadhilah Fitri Primandari is an independent researcher and a senior research assistant at the CoronaNet Research Project.