Opinion

Lesson of Indonesia’s
democratic experience

On behalf of the government and people of Indonesia, I am pleased to extend a very warm welcome to all of you to Jakarta. This is a very impressive gathering of the members of the World Movement for Democracy.

We see a positive trend of significant expansion of democracy, particularly in the second half of the 20th century. Democracy expanded in many regions of the world. It also swept Indonesia in 1997 – and changed us for good. As a result, the political map of the world was significantly changed, with all its strategic, geopolitical, economic and social consequences.

But at the same time, we also see a parallel trend of democracies in distress. Military coup, political instability, constitutional crisis, divisive polarization, violent conflicts, the return to authoritarianism and failed states.

Democracy, as we all know too well in Indonesia from experience, is never easy, never smooth and never linear. It always involves a painful process of trial and error, with many ups and downs.

I have no doubt that the future belongs to those who are willing to embrace pluralism, openness and freedom. I say this based on the Indonesian experience. For decades, when we experienced high economic growth in the 1970s and 1980s, Indonesians found convenient cover in our “comfort zone”, an authoritarian system that sought stability, development and national unity at all costs.

It was widely held that democracy would lead to national regress, rather than progress. Thus, our political development had to proceed through a very narrow and rigid corridor. Certainty was much more preferred than uncertainty.

Yes, it took some noisy soul searching and fierce public debate about the form and pace of democratic change. But 10 years after we held our first free elections in 1999, democracy in Indonesia is irreversible and a daily fact of life.

Indonesia’s democratic experience is relevant also in another way. For decades, we lived in environment which argued that we had to choose between democracy and economic growth. I do not wish to prejudge my predecessor. But I can tell you that such is no longer the case of today’s Indonesia. Today, our democracy is growing strong, while at the same time, Indonesia is registering the third highest economic growth among G20 countries, after China and India.

Indonesia’s democratic experience is also relevant if you consider the doomsday scenario about it. Indonesia was in total disarray. Our economy contracted by 12 percent. Ethnic violence flared up. East Timor seceded from Indonesia. Terrorist bombs were exploding. Constitutional crisis seemed endless. Even Thomas Friedman called Indonesia, like Russia, “the messy state – too large to work, too important to fail”. Many predicted Indonesia, after East Timor’s secession, would break apart into pieces. Some even talked about us becoming a failed state.

But we proved the skeptics wrong. Indonesia’s democracy has grown from strength to strength. We held three peaceful periodic national elections: In 1999, in 2004 and in 2009. We peacefully resolved the conflict in Aceh and pursued political and economic reforms in Papua. We made human rights protection a national priority. We pushed forward ambitious decentralization. Rather than regressing, Indonesia is progressing.

One of the key lessons for us is that democracy must connect with good governance. In the early years of our transition, this was one of the hardest things to do. We were so consumed in the euphoria of our newfound freedom that there was a time that governance suffered.

I can tell you that one of the key challenges for our democratic development is how to minimize and ultimately do away with “money politics”. Money politics can seriously undermine democracy because it induces elected leaders and politicians to serve their pay masters at the expense of the public good. It also produces artificial democracy, one that betrays public trust and crushes the democratic ideals and conscience.

I believe that the more money politics prevail, the less the people’s aspirations will be heard, and the more democracy will suffer. Certainly, fighting money politics will be a short, medium and long term challenge for Indonesia’s democracy.

This is why in our democratic development it is extremely critical to build lasting institutions. In the past 10 years, this is precisely what we have done. Our periodic elections ensure political accountability and peaceful changeovers. The office of the President is no longer the all-powerful dominant executive that it once was. The military and police no longer intervene in politics. The Parliament is vibrant and completely independent, and so is the judiciary. The constitutional relations among them are clearly defined. And the rule of law reigns supreme in our land.

All this is important because leaders may come and go, but the system must remain and democracy must go on. One of the reasons our democracy has held up is that it is completely homegrown. Yes, our democracy came out of a political crisis that was triggered by the 1997 financial crisis, which originated from outside our borders. But the desire to get rid of corruption, collusion and nepotism came wholly from within.

Thus, if we in Indonesia have made the right turns in history, it is only because that power of judgment rests at the hands of the good people who exercise it with great caution. That is why the most terrible thing to waste in a democracy is the mandate from the people, and the most precious asset to keep is the public trust.

Indeed, I see democratic development as a constant process of expanding opportunities and empowerment of the people. It is a process to promote gender equality and bring more women into politics. It is a process to reach out to those that are still marginalized. It is a process to prevent a tyranny of the majority, and build a national consensus on the future direction of a country. It is a democracy where every citizen can become a stake-holder.

We in Indonesia have shown, by example, that Islam, democracy and modernity can grow together. We are a living example that there is no conflict between a Muslim’s spiritual obligation to Allah SWT, his civic responsibility as a citizen in a pluralist society and his capacity to succeed in the modern world.

This brand of moderation, openness and tolerance in Indonesia and in other societies around the world is the seed of a 21st century world order marked by harmony among civilizations.

It is a sad fact that humanity has never had the good fortune to enjoy a century without conflict or contest between civilizations and cultures. But the 21st century can be different. It need not be a century of clash of civilizations. It can be a century marked by the emergence of global conscience across cultures and civilizations, working together to advance common cause of peace and progress.

Finally, it is time for us to build on this solidarity across cultures to promote a confluence of civilizations and make the 21st century the best century in the history of mankind.



The article is an excerpt of the President’s speech at the opening of the Sixth Assembly of World Movement for Democracy in Jakarta on April 12, 2010.

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