Twenty years of Indonesian democracy—how many more?

« Twenty years of Indonesian democracy—how many more? » by Edward Aspinall, 24 May 2018, New Mandala

When Indonesia’s New Order regime met its end in May 1998, I was a PhD student researching Indonesian opposition movements while teaching Indonesian language and politics at a university in Sydney. Along with other lecturers and students, I watched the live broadcast of Suharto’s resignation speech, listening to the words of one of our colleagues as she translated the president’s fateful words for Australian TV. Clustered around a television screen in a poky AV lab, everyone present felt awed by the immensity of what we were witnessing, relieved that a dangerous political impasse had been broken, and nervously hopeful about the future after so many long years of political stagnation.

The extraordinary achievements of political reform in the years that followed formed one of the great success stories of the so-called “third wave” of democratisation—the worldwide surge of regime change that began in Southern Europe in the mid-1970s and then spread through Latin America, Africa and Asia. The post-Suharto democracy has now lasted longer than did Indonesia’s earlier period of parliamentary democracy (1950–1957), and the subsequent Guided Democracy regime (1957–65). While it still has another dozen years to pass the record set by Suharto’s New Order, Indonesian democracy has proved that it has staying power.

What few would question, though, is that the quality of Indonesia’s democracy was a problem from the beginning—and that under President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) democratic quality has begun to slide dramatically.

Earlier this year, the Economist Intelligence Unit gave Indonesia its largest downgrading in its Democracy Index since scoring began in 2006. With a score of 6.39 out of a possible maximum of 10, the country is now bumping down toward the bottom of the index’s category of “flawed democracies”, on the verge—if it sinks just a little lower—of crossing into the category of “hybrid regime”. This downgrading of Indonesia’s position follows similar drops for the country in other democracy indices like the Freedom in the World survey compiled by Freedom House.

Indonesia’s trajectory is not bucking the global trend. Around the world, democracy is in retreat. Freedom House says democracy is facing “its most serious crisis in decades”, with 71 countries experiencing declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017 and only 35 registering gains, making 2017 the twelfth year in a row showing global democratic recession.

Unlike during an earlier era of military coups, today the primary source of democratic backsliding is elected politicians. Leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán undermine the rule of law, manipulate institutions for their own political advantage, and restrict the space for democratic opposition. Elected despotism is, increasingly, the order of the day. Indeed, as I argue here, the primary threat to Indonesia’s democratic system today comes not from actors outside the arena of formal politics, like the military or Islamic extremists, but the politicians that Indonesians themselves have chosen.

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