The Jakarta Post
While Indonesia’s budding democracy has faced a number of problems over the past year, there are still many reasons to be optimistic about the country’s democratic trajectory, observers have said.
Activists and experts have often highlighted what they consider to be the declining quality of democracy in Indonesia, as indicated by worsening scores in the Freedom House and Economist Intelligence Unit democracy indexes as well as Statistic Indonesia’s (BPS) Democracy Index.
But Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) executive director Philips Vermonte said such symptoms should be seen in the context of the country’s relatively young democracy and that the public perhaps needed to “manage [their] expectations.”
“I agree that this year in particular shows some serious challenges to our democracy,” Philips said at a discussion on the year in politics held by The Jakarta Post in Central Jakarta on Tuesday. “There are some mixed signals for Indonesia’s democracy, and there are some sources of optimism as well as sources of pessimism.”
He cited the successful and relatively peaceful 2019 elections - the fifth general election since the fall of the authoritarian New Order regime in 1998 - as one of the reasons to be hopeful.
“Jokowi is also the first civilian to survive two elections,” he said. “In itself, I think it’s a great achievement for us because it gives us an expectation that some aspects of a civilian democracy would be introduced in our democratic system.”
Philips added that the post-New Order decentralization process also showed heartening results and had “created a pool of potential national leaders.”
He said that while a lot of attention was paid to the contentious 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election - which was marked by the trial and conviction of former Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama for blasphemy - few noticed the more positive outcomes of the 2018 concurrent regional elections.
“There were four [gubernatorial] elections in the four largest provinces of Indonesia: West Java, Central Java, East Java and South Sulawesi,” he said. “The [gubernatorial] elections were won by technocrats in these four provinces where more than 65 percent of the Indonesian population lives.”
Former architect Ridwan Kamil won in West Java, defeating candidates backed by large political parties such as the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and the Golkar Party, while three-time minister Khofifah Indar Parawansa won in East Java despite her opponent being backed by the PDI-P and the National Awakening Party (PKB), which has a large presence in the province.
Meanwhile, Ganjar Pranowo, a career politician with no ties to the big political families, won in Central Java, while former academic Nurdin Abdullah prevailed over entrenched political dynasties in South Sulawesi.
Despite the positives, Philips acknowledged that there had been no “clean break” from the New Order government and that, on the whole, Indonesia remained “a very-elite driven democracy”.
“The expectation [during the late 1990s] was for us to have a very bottom-up democracy, a very radical view of democracy, but now I think we have to adjust our expectations a little.”
Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid, who was also present at the discussion, was less upbeat about the prospects of the country’s democracy given recent developments.
He said that 2019’s two major democratic setbacks - the weakening of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and the worsening of the country’s human rights situation - were the “consequence of broken promises about democratic reform.”
“President Joko Widodo promised to strengthen [the KPK] multiple times and I think he made very convincing gestures in the beginning particularly given his record as mayor of Solo, as governor of Jakarta […] and he surrounded himself with anticorruption activists,” Usman said, citing former antigraft campaigner Teten Masduki and former KPK spokesperson Johan Budi as examples.
But Usman said Jokowi had always shown signs of ambivalence toward the fight against corruption, especially if it seemed to clash with his economic development agenda.
He said the President’s approval of the controversial KPK Law revision, which experts and activists say will severely curtail the antigraft body’s effectiveness and independence, was just the last in a long series of attacks against the KPK that have occurred under Jokowi’s watch.
He added that Amnesty International Indonesia recorded that at least 287 people had been criminalized for criticizing the government between October 2014 and October 2019, indicating the declining space for freedom of expression in the country.
“Scholarly writings, NGO [non-governmental organization] observations and academic reports have all pointed out the setbacks of Indonesian democracy,” he said. “This is not to say that Indonesia is no longer a democratic country, but this is a very important wake-up call that the quality of our democracy is now very, very low.”
“So we have to work together, we have to work even harder in order to improve the quality of Indonesian democracy including the quality of freedom,” he concluded.