The State of Democracy in Indonesia

democracy in indonesia

As Indonesia prepares to vote this week, democracy watchers should be aware that the country’s progress in building a robust political system is not yet complete. This is not due to the inability of voters, civil society or the military to make a difference—on the contrary, it stems from the failure of governing institutions to uphold democratic principles. Moreover, the failure of the state to uphold fundamental rights and freedoms undermines the political legitimacy of the system itself.

The process of democratization in Indonesia has been underway since the end of President Suharto’s dictatorship in 1998 and is rooted in the country’s founding constitution. The reform era has seen democratic institutions emerge, including a constitutionally mandated multiparty system and limits on the presidential power, decentralization of authority to the regions and the first peaceful transition of power in the country’s history.

While these positive trends have accelerated under the leadership of President Joko Widodo, progress remains fragile and a number of challenges persist. Political corruption is still widespread, and the economy has been plagued by slow growth and a widening income gap. Radical sectarian elements and opportunistic elements from the old elite remain active in the country, contributing to a polarized society. The nation is also vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, a challenge that requires a collective effort across the spectrum of public and private sectors.

Many observers agree that a minimum set of conditions should be met for a regime to qualify as a democracy, and these include free and fair elections, the rule of law, consolidated civil rights, an efficient judiciary and more. A maximist view, however, is that these conditions are not enough, and that democracies must also guarantee a range of additional rights, such as economic and social equality, religious freedom and more.

This article is the latest in a series examining the state of democracy in indonesia. To read more articles in the series, click here.

Sana Jaffrey is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a senior fellow in its Asia Program. She focuses on Indonesia and the broader Southeast Asian region.

Jaffrey’s research explores the intersection between Islam and democracy, and she is a leading expert on Muslim political participation in Indonesia. She is an advocate for reforming the country’s democracy and supports efforts to promote inclusive, pluralistic politics in Indonesia. Her work is published in numerous journals, books and newspapers and she has spoken extensively on these topics at universities and forums around the world. Her book “Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: The Unfinished Reformation” was published by Oxford University Press in 2022. She is a member of the Global Commission on Elections and Democracy.