In Defence of Indonesian Democracy
Satish Chandra Mishra

In politics, as in life, context is everything. This is something on which almost everyone agrees and yet most of us ignore. The result is at times tragic, such as when we hit peak hour traffic jams on way to catch the last train home. At others, it is comical such as when, after a drunken party, we mistake a mouse for a hippo, or an ant for a scorpion. Something of the sort has been happening in the wake of the Indonesian elections concluded just yesterday.

A very recent, February 12, New York Times article by Gordon LaForge titled “The sun is setting on Indonesia’s democratic era”, argues that Indonesian democracy is “backsliding”, the Economist is worried about our next president saying he is unlikely to strengthen the country’s democracy. Bloomberg is quick to point out that “Probowo’s victory means Democracy interrupted”. Like your favourite snake dance, the list could go winding on and on.

The first problem is to determine what is the central property of a successful democracy. This is not easy. The fact is that virtually no two democracies look alike.

Take the UK with its Westminster Parliament: oldest but with no written constitution, no term limits for the Prime Minister, first past the post voting, two dominant parties, hereditary seats in the House of Lords with a few selected by the ruling government. The USA: written constitution, Bill of Rights, defined separation of powers, federal with an electoral college to ensure a voice for a given ‘State’, a powerful Supreme Court but nominated by the President. In France, we see a mixture of a Presidential and parliamentary systems. India is federal, with a model of democracy largely inherited from the colonial era with a series of amendments. It has a mechanism for overriding provincial government authority by imposing a limited-period President’s rule.

The Swiss have evolved an extreme form of decentralisation by which the citizen has the right to vote on specific issues. It is governed by a Federal Council whose decisions are made by consensus.

There are now so many different types of democracy that we now even have democracy indices. Just look at the 2023 World Democracy Report published by the aptly named “Varieties of Democracy Institute”. The good news is that the tracking, measurement and classification of different indicators of democratic polities allows us to pay attention to the workings of political systems. The downside is that we risk losing the wood for the trees. We turn a living political organism into a statistician’s paradise. The more critical danger is that we risk giving birth to a generation of high priests of democracy, often from outside the political system who sit as the prophets of some impossible democracy: to which we should for ever aspire but can never achieve.

So, let’s get back to basics. Despite the bewildering variety, what makes a democracy a ‘real’ democracy? Free and fair elections, freedom of speech and assembly, separation -of-powers, rule of law and constitutional limits to the concentration of power, freedom of the press and an active civil society. The expected result is an orderly and peaceful process by which power is transferred from one government or one party to another. It is this peaceful succession, within a set of rules that every-one is expected to play by, that gives democracy its systemic stability and long-term survival. Democracies can survive for centuries. Modern day autocracies are often limited, unless very fortunate, to the life span of the autocrat.

So, is Indonesia ‘backsliding’? Of course, this is itself a very loaded question given democracy’s variable universe? It has just gone through a spectacularly free and, by all accounts, fair election. That too in the world’s largest archipelago with over 17,000 islands, and over 204 million electors, with over a million living outside the country but eligible to vote. This is impressive. What is even more so is voter’s participation. Although the final actual voter counts are still underway it is expected to be well over 80 percent. There is little evidence of Sandel’s democratic discontent here.

But there is more. Indonesia’s election on February 14, like its earlier elections, showed very little evidence of violent conflict or dangerously inflamed passions. No extreme religious gangs or armed militia or military groups roamed the streets. No foreign money or foreign government has bent the electoral process. Social media is unrestricted. The free press is everywhere. Democracy has become a festival to be celebrated not a system to be feared.

Let’s get back to the context. Indonesia has built its unique home-grown democracy within a span of 23 calendar years, but less than 15 to 16 normal years. Take into account the years of post-New-Order collapse, the sharpest economic decline in its post-independence history, the national shock of the 2005 Tsunami, and its exceptionally comprehensive decentralisation.

But that is not all. The military has stepped out of politics after four decades of centralised, autocratic rule. Its power has been fragmented by the bifurcation of the police and the military; its business and financial space has weakened with the reform of military businesses. Gone is the philosophy of ‘Dwi Fungsi’ by which it legitimised its military as well as its civilian jurisdiction.

Indonesia continues to face many structural challenges. The list is long. It includes inter-spatial economic inequality, the dominance of Java, the concentration of wealth in a few families at the top of the business chain, poor connectivity across its islands, the rapid increase in its urban population and the demand for urban infrastructure and the poor quality of its health and education services. It also needs to look after its old and the disabled if democracy is to be as much as the shield for the minority; not merely a sword of the majority.

But even here, its new political system, born of its sharpest 1998 economic collapse, was far-sighted as well as caring. It introduced a minimum 20 percent threshold for public expenditure on education. The national health insurance system provides universal health care to Indonesia’s entire population, rich or poor, Muslim or Christian, Buddhist or Hindu, male or female.

Is Indonesian democracy backsliding? Was the USA backsliding when it elected Eisenhower, was Truman a war criminal when he authorised the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.? Did the victims of bombings of Vietnam and the killers of Mai Lai receive justice in US courts? Were the perpetrators of napalm carpets in Cambodia’s peaceful rice fields punished for inhuman cruelty.

These terrible atrocities were largely overlooked as actions taken in the Fog of War.

This is not to say that doubts about Prabowo Subianto’s military record do not deserve scrutiny. But the democratic and fair process is to approach these through the courts and the legal process. It should not be left to a few high priests of democratic sanctity who continually ask us to strive for more just when we are setting new, previously thought unachievable, records.

It is interesting that Mr LaForge, is not content to throw cold water on Indonesian democracy. He reserves a similar invective for Modi’s India. This is the worlds’ largest democracy. Indonesia is its third. The US is the second. It sets such a poor example of opposing parties playing by the rules; that Indonesian democracy really does shine in comparison.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

Image Source:

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
3 + 4 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us