Few societies can draw on such a deep well of social and political tolerance as Indonesia’s. The world’s third-largest Muslim democracy has been able to sustain democratic institutions and conduct credible elections for more than two decades since the fall of Suharto’s New Order regime. While Indonesia’s political culture may be a model for liberal democracies struggling with partisan polarization, it’s not without its flaws.
One major concern is the role of religious identity in politics. The Jakarta vote was a stark case in point. The winning candidate, Anies Baswedan, ran a campaign blaming Ahok for allegedly supporting Islamist extremism, a charge that Ahok vigorously denied. The fact that Anies won easily suggests that religious identity was a significant factor in voter decision making.
Another concern is the state’s continued use of repressive laws to limit freedom of expression. Despite the fact that most Indonesians say they believe it’s important to express personal views on a range of topics, only about two-thirds actually engage in civic activities such as contacting an elected official or joining a protest.
Nevertheless, Indonesians generally hold positive attitudes about the health of their democracy and their country’s economy. More than half of those surveyed in a recent Pew Research Center survey said they were optimistic about the future of their nation.
The challenges facing Indonesia are broader than a single election cycle, however. The coronavirus pandemic has tested the strength of Indonesia’s democratic system in a way that has also challenged many other large and diverse democracies around the world.
As a result, the country’s political leaders have proposed returning to indirect regional elections in which local executives are selected by provincial legislatures rather than directly by voters. This would be a major departure from two decades of reform and undermine one of the key sources of democratic accountability—the ability for voters to evaluate and punish incompetent executives through an electoral process.
Finally, a third concern is the extent to which the military continues to shape political campaigns, party selections and elections in the country. While President Joko Widodo has made a point of dismantling the military’s influence, former commanders still play a prominent role in politics, including in his administration. Meanwhile, intimidation by nonstate actors—including armed groups with links to the military—remains a serious problem. Overall, these factors suggest that if Indonesians do not act swiftly and wisely to address the challenges they face, the long-term viability of their democracy could be in jeopardy.