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Jakarta Post

Fulfilling Indonesia'€™s democratic promise

  • Sarah Repucci

    The Jakarta Post

New York   /   Sun, November 16, 2014   /  01:00 pm

The election of President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo reinforced Indonesia'€™s democratic credentials while serving as further proof that democracy remains vibrant outside of the global north.

While Indonesia continues to face internal challenges that obstruct the ability of all of its citizens to exercise their full rights, a new study from NGO Freedom House has found the country to be a potential example for its ASEAN neighbors and others across the globe that are struggling to make a transition from authoritarian rule.

However, the extent to which President Jokowi will continue his predecessor'€™s notable support for democratic development in other countries remains in doubt; he has not yet articulated strong interest in democracy promotion as part of his policy agenda.

As an emerging regional power, Indonesia should seize the opportunity to expand its leadership in support of democracy and human rights abroad.

Since the end of former president Soeharto'€™s dictatorship, Indonesia has embraced free institutions to an extent that is unusual in Southeast Asia.

While Indonesian policy has emphasized closer economic integration in the region, it also sees political cooperation as important. Under former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the government considered the spread and consolidation of democracy as a crucial component of its response to major global challenges. It also believed that advancing democracy in Asia would enable the region to assume a more important role in world affairs.

Based on a transition experience that built on an interaction between the state and civil society, Indonesia has raised democratic themes in relation with regional neighbors that are undergoing political change.

Most prominently, Indonesia launched the Bali Democracy Forum, which brings together representatives from the Pacific to Asia to the Middle East to discuss topics, such as expanding space for civil society and other democratic subjects.

Although many governments that participate in Bali have less than impressive records of democratic governance '€” and Indonesia itself banned protests outside the 2014 venue '€” the forum is one of the few places where these governments come together to discuss their struggles with promoting freedom and their experiences in overcoming them.

Indonesia has also been instrumental among ASEAN members in pushing democracy and human rights as priorities of the ASEAN community. Despite the reluctance of some members to accept that democracy ranks among core ASEAN values, the 2007 ASEAN charter and the Political-Security Community Blueprint encourage shared norms among all members and provide a foundation to promote free and fair elections in the region.

Indonesia has contributed to the spread of free institutions through more direct contacts as well. In particular, it has set up mechanisms for the exchange of information about free and fair elections among its neighbors.

The 2014 election was a key example, when participants from other countries came to Indonesia to observe the drafting of election rules, the management of the election process, resolution of disputes and efforts to engage the public. Visitors were able to see political debates and discuss election management with representatives from the electoral commission, think tanks, the media and political parties.

Based on these and other examples, Freedom House has ranked Indonesia'€™s democracy promotion record above several other leading democracies. Brazil, Japan and South Africa were all found to have provided only minimal support over the past two years, reflecting weak assistance to struggling democratic institutions and silence in the face of some of the most egregious abuses.

In contrast, Indonesia under the Yudhoyono administration exhibited greater political will and more concrete efforts to influence political developments in its region and beyond.

Nevertheless, Indonesia has failed to achieve its potential due to its emphasis on noninterference and respect for sovereignty even in the face of repression and rampant atrocities.

By limiting its democratic support to a series of national processes and regional mechanisms rather than singling out states for criticism, Indonesia has so far failed to have a clear impact on the actions of repressive governments.

While Indonesia may assert that strategies of condemnation and sanctions are ineffective or counterproductive, it has yet to demonstrate that its alternative approaches can generate lasting change.

Under Indonesia'€™s new president, the country has the chance to strengthen its influence as a leading democracy and amplify its support for the values of freedom in its foreign policy. It should expand ongoing projects like the Bali forum and electoral exchanges while ensuring that it does not help authoritarians to whitewash their abuses.

In ASEAN, Indonesia can mobilize collective responses to coups, atrocities and human rights abuses such as those in Thailand and Myanmar, as well as oppose efforts to water down joint action.

Most of all, Indonesia can end internal rights violations such as mistreatment of minorities and limitations on free association and expression in order to serve as a better example for all countries struggling to consolidate their own democracies.


The writer is the project director of Supporting Democracy Abroad at Freedom House, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that supports democratic change, monitors freedom and advocates for democracy and human rights in New York.

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