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Jakarta Post

The vulnerability of Indonesian democracy

  • Sudirman Said


Jakarta   /   Wed, October 21, 2020   /   08:58 am
The vulnerability of Indonesian democracy Medical workers carry a fainted voter during a simulation of regional election in Banyuwangi, East Java on Sept. 14, 2020. The simulation was held as part of preparation for the 2020 simultaneous regional elections set to take place in 270 regions across Indonesia on Dec. 9. (Antara/Budi Candra Setya)

Observing the debate about whether the regional elections should continue in the middle of the pandemic, a question arises: Can democracy work during COVID-19 or has it fallen victim to the pandemic?

If the debate is a byproduct of democratic spaces, differing opinions between the state (policymakers) and civil society should reflect those dynamics. However, if the lens of democracy is wholly utilized, why has a policy that, in the eyes of civil society, is harmful been chosen? Has the process of democracy made way for policies that are not for the good of the people?

If the latter is the case, has another “pandemic” struck and paralyzed democracy? Is there a lurking vulnerability in the body of democracy that has left the country unprepared to face this “pandemic”?

We may not have the vaccine or medicine to fight this political illness and save us from paralysis or, worse, annihilation. If this is the case, is it still possible to find a new “medicine” and develop a “vaccine” for democracy? We hope the “vaccine” will lead us to an everlasting immunity, protecting us from the disease.

The idea of democracy is certainly not a finished and singular one. Philosophers and political scientists have and will continue to contest one another in conceptualizing and observing the long and winding road of democratic practices.

While etymologically, democracy is easily understood as a government of the people, by the people and for the people, there is a deeper meaning contained in the general definition.

First, there are no other parties in a democracy except the people that can control and or govern other people. If a regime rises above the people, it comes from no one but the people and is formed through the willingness of the people.

Second, all acts of a democratic government reflect the will of the people, and therefore, no will of the government should contradict the best interest of the public.

These deep meanings lead to difficulty in forming a government. First, it needs to be ensured that the process guarantees that the government is representative of the will of the people. Second, the government, as a result, should not work according to its own will, based on self-made rules, but should always strive to achieve what the public seeks and work according to the rules set out by the public. This, in turn, will strengthen the argument that power comes from the public as expressed in the Constitution.

These images are mere outlines of democracy and do not fully capture its whole essence.

To ensure that democratic principles work in the formation of government, democratic rules and procedures are established. But democratic procedures do not necessarily result in democratic institutions.

In reality, democratic procedures do not produce what the public imagines or hopes. The rampant corruption, human rights violations and the failure to produce standard economic indicators are initial evidence that democratic procedures do not, by themselves, produce outcomes that live up to public expectations.

Democracy as a procedure is, of course, not democracy itself. There is no democracy without people, and the people can choose other ways to organize themselves.

The quality and capacity of the people will greatly determine the formation of democracy. If the people have full awareness of themselves and can place themselves correctly in democracy, chances are that democratic practices will produce something that follows the will of the people.

The problem is that we are faced with a reality unlike the utopia of a fully literate society. The National Team for the Acceleration of Poverty Reduction once said the income gap in Indonesia ranked fourth in the world after Russia, India and Thailand. Last August, Coordinating Human Development and Culture Minister Muhadjir Effendy said 56 percent of the country’s labor force only attended, not even graduated from, elementary and junior high school.

The data can be used to weigh the condition of society, which is the basis of democracy. With such a yawning gap, there are people who are more empowered than others, even though every citizen is equal before the law and every vote counts.

High political costs and vote buying ( The Jakarta Post, April 12, 2019), as well as various maneuvers that appear to be the operation of money politics, are initial indications that there is an unequal situation that is plaguing democratic practices.

Will this unequal situation disrupt the course of democracy? If we are loyal to the meaning and purpose of democracy, of course problems emerge when inequality is used as a lens to view the performance of democracy. To a certain extent, the election may be used to show the problem in question.

Although normatively it is said that everyone has the right to be elected and to elect, in practice, the mechanism is not that simple. Political nature and procedures can become real barriers so that not everyone can join the race. A study on campaign funds by Didik Supriyanto and Lia Wulandari (2013), “Campaign Funds for Ignoring the Principles of Transparency and Accountability of Electoral Contestants”, more or less illustrates that those who have more financial capacity will dominate the political arena.

Of course, there are always opportunities to limit this in the name of transparency and fairness, but the regulations governing this direction are not easy. “Improvement through the legislative process is not easy because the party cadres who are authorized to make laws are in the legislature and government. They are unlikely to make laws that will make things difficult for themselves, and as members of the leadership of political parties, they also do not want to make laws that threaten the influence of wealthy people on political parties.”

Although this picture is, of course, only a small part of a more complex whole, it can be said that inequality makes it very difficult for democracy to work. This is what is called the vulnerability of democracy.

However, democracy must be present. With democracy, hopefully this inequality can be gradually overcome. In the transition to equality, efforts are needed so that the systems work and can accommodate public aspirations as much as possible.

For this purpose, the following are required: (1) a guarantee of democratic rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of association; (2) the rule of law, especially to ensure that power comes from the law and is limited and checked; (3) fair elections; (4) a government that is open to criticism; and (5) a strong and independent civil society.

These five aspects, if combined properly, can serve as a “vaccine” by which democracy can achieve immunity from and be less prone to “diseases” that can endanger public interests and safety. A healthy democracy will certainly be the principal tool to deal with difficult challenges.

All acts of a democratic government reflect the will of the people, and therefore, no will of the government should contradict the best interest of the public.


Chairman of Institut Harkat Negeri (IHN), a think tank

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