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Jakarta Post

Debating quality of Indonesia’s democracy

  • Eve Warburton and Thomas Power


Canberra   /   Mon, July 22, 2019   /   10:20 am
Debating quality of Indonesia’s democracy Democracy under threat: Demonstrators protest at the Constitutional Court in Jakarta against the implementation of the Legislative Insitutions ( MD3 ) Law. The protesters claimed the law undermined democracy. (JP/Dhoni Setiawan)

A recent commentary by The Jakarta Post senior editor Endy M. Bayuni — “Indonesia’s democracy alive, but needs more kick” — criticized a growing body of international scholarship that claims Indonesian democracy is in decline.

The writer was particularly disapproving of an upcoming conference in Australia. He was obviously referring to the Indonesia Update at the Australian National University (ANU), themed “From stagnation to regression? Indonesian democracy after 20 years”. By proposing this theme, he suggested, those involved had“essentially condemned [Indonesia] as a failing state on the verge of returning to a dictatorship”.

As convenors of this conference we feel compelled to respond to Endy’s article, and to correct several mischaracterizations.

First, contrary to his assertion, no serious academic would use a term such as “failed state” or “dictatorship” in reference to contemporary Indonesia. A failed state describes a scenario in which government can no longer serve its citizens, where rule of law and the economy have collapsed, and the ruling regime has lost its legitimacy. Countries like Somalia or Libya get described in this way. Indonesia, very obviously, has little in common with such countries.

A dictatorship, meanwhile, is a regime ruled by one person or one party. There is no effective opposition, and no chance for citizens to vote in an alternative government. Again, clearly, this is not an appropriate descriptor for contemporary Indonesia. Nor does any serious academic suggest it is likely that Indonesia will adopt such a system of government in the near future.

By using these sorts of terms (or suggesting that we have used these sorts of terms), the writer seems to be confusing “democratic regression” with the return of “dictatorship”. Democratic regression is a slow-moving process. It happens when political or social actors incrementally chip away at a country’s democratic institutions and norms. It doesn’t lead quickly to outright authoritarianism.

Instead, democratic regression slowly produces other types of political regimes that inhabit a space between full democracy and dictatorship — illiberal democracies, competitive authoritarian systems, hybrid regimes, for example. It is this gradual, piecemeal erosion of liberal democracy that is most common today around the world, including in our region.

Second, we agree that having free and fair elections is an essential characteristic of a functioning democracy — but it is not the only one. Endy mentions, but then seems to dismiss, the fact that Indonesia has experienced “some regression in areas like human rights and guaranteeing basic freedoms”, “rising intolerance” and “many other challenges”.

These are precisely the sorts of challenges that matter, and that have led so many local and international political scientists to conclude that Indonesia’s democracy is entering a new phase of decline. The comparative democratization literature identifies problems such as growing intolerance, deepening political polarisation, the rise of misinformation and the erosion of human rights as important indicators of democratic deconsolidation. For Endy to acknowledge the deterioration of human rights, liberties and tolerance is — necessarily — to acknowledge troubling trends in Indonesia’s democratic quality.

Finally, as Endy points out, the challenges facing Indonesian democracy are by no means unique. But his suggestion that Indonesian democracy has been “singled out for criticism” is not correct: far from being unfairly maligned, Indonesia was routinely lauded as a beacon of democratic success through the first decade of this century. And rightly so.

In fact, the recent trend in Indonesian political studies has been to reassess and temper earlier claims of Indonesian exceptionalism based on new evidence of democratic regression. In doing so, scholars never deny Indonesia’s remarkable democratic achievements; instead they recognise new and emerging challenges and fault-lines in Indonesian democracy, many of which mirror those faced by other young and consolidated democracies.

This year’s ANU Indonesia Update conference places the Indonesian case within a broader global context of democratic decline. Our speakers — political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists and political practitioners, from both Indonesia and abroad — will investigate and debate the degree to which democratic regression is indeed taking place in Indonesia, and assess whether new problems of polarization, populism, disinformation, and the like, constitute serious threats to one of the world’s largest and most important democracies.

Our purpose is certainly not to push a predetermined narrative; rather, we want to investigate in a balanced, nuanced and objective manner one of the most significant issues in both contemporary Indonesian studies and comparative political science. We expect participants to have very different views on this issue.

We hope that Endy Bayuni and the Post readers can tune in to our conference for a stimulating and important intellectual debate.


Eve Warburton is postdoctoral research fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. Thomas Power is doctoral candidate at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.

The above views are the opinions of the authors and not necessarily representative of those of the Indonesia Update Conference organizers and funders

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.