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Jakarta Post

Democracy or bust

  • Editorial Board

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, December 12, 2019   /   08:02 am
Democracy or bust Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi takes a group photo with participants of the 2018 Bali Democracy Forum in Nusa Dua, Bali on Dec. 6, 2018. (The Jakarta Post/Dian Septiari)

Democracy is going through a rough patch around the world. Even in places where governance is usually regarded as mature and secure, it has been meeting challenges.

After over two centuries, cracks have begun to appear in the fabric of United States democracy with the rise of President Donald Trump. After constantly harassing the media, Trump has moved into dangerous territory by undermining the basic democratic principle of checks and balances by refusing to work with the legislative body in the ongoing impeachment process. It has not helped that Trump prefers to heap praise on autocrats of the world rather than having constructive talks with his democratic allies.

Deep within the European Union, we have seen a surge in populist movements with the emergence of illiberal tendencies toward promoting exclusive national identities and hostility to immigration.

In places where democracy has never been secure, such as in Russia, China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, any semblance of freedom has been further diminished with policies aimed at silencing government critics, with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi being a primary example.

This year Freedom House in its 2019 report pronounced that democracy is in retreat and that for the 14th consecutive year the world experienced a decline in global freedom. “The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century, but the pattern is consistent and ominous. Democracy is in retreat,” it says.

Indonesia appears to have joined this global trend. Throughout the year, many developments have pointed to the erosion of democratic practices that had been put in place in the 20 years since the downfall of Soeharto’s New Order regime. Security agencies, the National Police in particular, have shown no hesitation to arrest activists and protesters. The policing of the internet and social media has also raised fears that some form of digital authoritarianism has arrived here. Rights groups have also reported more cases of violence against journalists and activists this year.

In the past three months, political elites have begun floating the idea of extending the presidential term limit and doing away with direct presidential and local elections. Security authorities also plan to expand surveillance, even of majelis taklim (Quran study groups).

Given the current state of our democratic experiment, it may seem counterintuitive for Indonesia to promote democracy. But it was against this backdrop that the Foreign Ministry staged the 12th Bali Democracy Forum recently.

Actually, there is no better time than now for Indonesia to promote democracy. As established Western democracies struggle with their own problems of populism and illiberal tendencies, Indonesia, despite its flaws, continues to be a vibrant home for freedom.

Those who lived through the last days of Soeharto’s regime would never have dared think that a small-time mayor, originally from a poor family in Central Java’s hinterland, could be elected and reelected to the highest office. But that is exactly what happened in this year’s presidential election. That is a proud tale of a democratic triumph that needs to be shared with neighbors, and which we all need to safeguard.