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Recently I attended a talk at Chatham House in London on the present state of democracy in Indonesia. The talk was given by a political scientist, and in the audience were several senior academics, who were also political scientists, as well as representatives of government institutions and international NGOs and two or three students.
The talk and the discussion which followed focused on whether democratic institutions in Indonesia were progressing or were on the decline, and to facilitate the debate comparisons were drawn with other countries and references were made to Indonesia’s position on global indices of democratic states. There were also allusions to political theories which generalized about what happened in states which had established democratic institutions in the wake of the fall of autocratic regimes.
Listening to the talk as someone very skeptical of the use of a comparative political science approach to analyzing, interpreting and assessing developments in specific countries I was struck by how the political events of the past two years in Indonesia could be understood so differently by observers.
Those of us who follow Indonesian politics know for example that the issues which have dominated public discourse have been, among others, the difficulties with regional and local elections, the problems faced by the KPK in trying to bring people to justice, and the acts of violence perpetrated by those attacking religious places of worship and intimidating followers of minority religious beliefs. Of the latter the most prominent cases in Java at least have been the attacks on the Ahmadiyah and campaigns against the setting up of churches.
For the Indonesian populace and for the outside world these issues and the government responses to them are of major significance. Of course what outsiders as informed observers write and report back to their governments has a significant impact on the global business community and its decisions whether to invest in Indonesia and promote economic growth. Foreign government aid and development programs also pay close attention to these reports in determining how best to allocate their resources.
Consequently, when political scientists argue that government response has been inadequate and suggest that democratic institutions are experiencing a decline we need to sit up and listen carefully.
Their argument is that political elites — their term — are trying to sabotage democracy and make Indonesia once more an autocracy under a strong leader designated by themselves in which they would be able to flourish as before. If you look at what is happening now, say the political scientists, the government and party political representatives in the DPR, controlled by the elites, is colluding to promote this agenda.
For example, the government is not giving sufficient support to the KPK; it is turning the clock back in moving again to a system where governors are appointed not elected; and it is not taking sufficiently strong action against those who attack religious and ethnic minorities.
Now in all these cases there is a measure of truth in these criticisms. The KPK should indeed be given more support and this support must be tangible and visible to the satisfaction of the public. Indeed the issue of appointment or election to gubernatorial and district head (Bupati/WaliKota) positions needs much more public discussion.
Is the turn back to appointment a regression from democracy since it does not allow the people themselves to choose, or, and I think a strong case can be made for this, is it a temporary measure necessary because over the past few years the system of elections has thrown up much discontent and malpractice and bad government at the local level?
Finally, yes, the government needs to act much more promptly and effectively to deal with acts of violence against minorities, otherwise it will give the impression to the Indonesian public and to the outside world that it does not take abuses of human rights seriously. So we can give the political scientists credit for once more bringing these issues to our attention and, as they suggest, we should all be urging the government and the influential institutions of civil society to take the appropriate action.
On the other hand, it is also important to look at developments in Indonesia through the comparative lens not of political institutions on a scale of more or less democratic, more or less failing, more or less corrupt, but in the light of Indonesian recent history itself.
In other words we must ask how does the situation appear now compared to 10, 20, 30 years ago and what are the prospects for the future? Will things get better or worse, and looking at recent developments how can we try to mitigate or avoid the problems that are likely to occur?
Of course Indonesians themselves and the human rights organizations are very much aware of this and all of us — including the participants at the Chatham House talk — are looking to the upcoming elections in 2014 and trying to identify who are the presidential candidates most able to secure a prosperous democratic future for the country.
To my mind as a historian and an anthropologist and as someone who has been observing at first hand political developments in Indonesia over the last 40 years, the political scientists who point to the limitations of the current Indonesian political system are unduly pessimistic and insufficiently mindful of the gigantic strides that Indonesia has made towards creating a functioning democracy in the last 15 years.
Who would have thought 20 years ago that the Indonesian press would become the freest press in Southeast Asia, or that there would be any sort of KPK chasing corrupt political figures, or that the courts would be reformed, or that civil society institutions dealing with human rights abuses would be allowed to exist, or that trade unions could not only exist but campaign and protest democratically, or that elections, whatever minor irregularities still occur, would be reasonably free and fair, or that there would be freedom of speech for political opponents of the government, or that the Chinese community would once more be able publicly and openly to celebrate Chinese New Year? All these have been tremendous gains and should be acknowledged.
Of course there are always dangers that democratic gains will be eroded unless civil society is watchful and a population is fully informed and vigilant. There are good grounds, not least of which is the strident voice of the people represented through old and new media, that Indonesians are well aware of the issues, and the more support which they can be given through programs which seek both to ensure increasing standards of welfare in health and nutrition and in education will create an ever more politically sophisticated population. A well-fed and well-educated population is of course the best guarantee of a thriving democracy.
The writer is emeritus professor, school of anthropology and conservation, University of Kent and professor, school of business and management, Bandung Institute of Technology.