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Indonesian democracy is at a crossroads



Advocates of democracy in Indonesia and across the globe breathed a sigh of relief when the Indonesian Constitutional Court ruled against presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto's legal challenge of the country's April presidential election result. Prabowo's challenge was always expected to fail — his protestations of electoral fraud were based on little more than hot air. Nevertheless, Indonesians were set at ease by the return of the rightfully-elected candidate, Joko Widodo, for five more years.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his wife Iriana speak to journalists after casting his ballot at a polling station on 17 April 2019 in Jakarta. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)Despite the turbulent political, social and religious events that have recently engulfed the nation, the Constitutional Court's ruling confirms that Indonesian democracy can move forward confidently; renewing the stability and effectiveness it has mostly delivered during its Reformasi period. In other words, alarm bells aren't ringing over the health of its democracy.

The appetite for electoral politics in Indonesia has continued. The turnout rate was 80.5 per cent in the 2019 elections. While this is lower than its first legislative election in 1999, which saw a 93 per cent turnout rate, these are numbers that established democracies like the United States and Britain could only dream of. Considering that Indonesia is a country composed of over 17,000 islands (of which 6000 are inhabited), a population of 264 million, and hundreds of languages and dialects, a high turnout rate is a colossal administrative and political task.

In terms of choice available to voters, there are countless parties competing for Indonesian votes. A handful of major parties have historically jostled for the office of president — Widodo's Indonesian Party of Struggle, Subianto's Gerindra, Golkar and the Democratic Party — while there is a surplus of political choice in legislative elections. These parties represent a range of political views, from social conservatism, pro-business centrism, nationalism, Islamic ideology, and beliefs based on Indonesia's state philosophy, Pancasila.

Though new and still developing, Indonesia's governmental institutions play an important role in securing the legitimacy of its elections and overseeing government action. The General Elections Commission has — for the most part — successfully administered ballots and counted electoral votes without fear or favour.

The Constitutional Court's special jurisdiction to determine the validity of elections, the registration and dissolution of political parties and undertake constitutional review of laws has tangibly strengthened Indonesian democracy and preserved public confidence in the system. The court also intervened in the 2014 presidential election, confirming Widodo's first election victory by dismissing Prabowo's unfounded claims of fraud, corruption and vote-counting errors.

Then there is the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). Transparency International has described it as a 'vital pillar of [the] rule of law and anti-corruption in Indonesia', which has the support of 80 per cent of the Indonesian populace. The KPK's chief responsibilities are to investigate and prosecute public officials involved in corruption; also reserving the right to access documents, freeze financial transactions and detain persons of interest. The KPK has materially reduced the corruption that plagued the country during Suharto's reign, claiming a number of high-profile scalps since its establishment in 2003.


"Even with all these growing strengths, there are warning signs of potential fragility that must be addressed for Indonesia's democratic project to succeed long term."


It brought down the Speaker of the People's Representative Council (DPR-RI), Setya Novanto, for taking bribes; Akil Mochtar, a former chief justice of the Constitutional Court, for money laundering and bribes; and ex-sports minister Andi Mallarangeng for engaging in graft.

Yet, even with all these growing strengths, there are warning signs of potential fragility that must be addressed for Indonesia's democratic project to succeed long term. Prabowo's failure to accept the presidential election outcome precipitated violent demonstrations in Jakarta that killed eight people and injured hundreds. Though his backers have a history of public protest, the latest rallies represent an escalation of violence and creeping radicalism in the country's political and cultural life — largely motivated by greater and stricter adherence to conservative Islam. And while Prabowo has reluctantly accepted the court's ruling, he has stopped short of conceding defeat.

Previously, Prabowo's messiah-like complex has created cause for concern: to what lengths might he go to become president? He is widely expected to launch a campaign for the presidency in 2024, which Widodo cannot contest due to term limits.

But there are issues larger than just Prabowo. The jailing of the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama — a Christian of Chinese descent — on blasphemy charges for saying that Muslims are permitted to vote for non-Muslim political candidates became a national symbol for the growing radicalism in Indonesian politics. The case has unsettling implications for principles of freedom of speech, democratic representation and the foundations of Indonesia's multireligious state.

These religious developments have also resulted in a woman being jailed for requesting that the volume of the call to prayer be lowered. And Widodo's selection of Ma'ruf Amin as his running mate seems to be a reaction to this growing sentiment. Amin, who resigned from a role as the head of the largest Islamic organisation in the world to accept Widodo's offer, was presumably chosen to negate claims that Widodo isn't 'Islamic enough'.

Despite the best efforts of the KPK, government organisations and civil society, corruption levels remain endemic. Transparency International awarded Indonesia a score of 38 out of 100, stating that corruption infects all arms of government. Bribes, money laundering, nepotism and kickbacks are still common. Members of the DPR-RI are said to be the most corrupt, however, there are serious questions concerning the integrity and impartiality of judges across Indonesia.

Another deficiency in its democracy is its shutout of progressive, left-wing politics. The attempted communist coup of 1965 that helped bring Suharto to power still looms over its national politics. The Indonesian Communist Party is outlawed, and self-professed communists face hefty jail terms. Likewise, any individuals, organisations or parties that espouse left-of-centre politics are exposed to the accusation of being enemies of the state.

On balance, Indonesia's democratic systems are working well. Indonesian democracy has proven resilient to challenge and made inroads into combatting problems that have beset the country for decades. But a crossroads approaches. A failure to manage religious radicalism and intolerance, corruption, and other social tensions may imperil or destabilise this democratic epoch.



Nicholas BugejaNicholas Bugeja is an assistant editor for Independent Australia and an Arts/Law student at Monash University. He edited the Monash student magazine Lot's Wife in 2017 and has written on topics such as film, politics, comedy and theatre for a variety of publications. You can follow him on Twitter @BugejaNick.

Main image: Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his wife Iriana speak to journalists after casting his ballot at a polling station on 17 April 2019 in Jakarta. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Nicholas Bugeja, Indonesia, Prabowo Subianto, Joko Widodo



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Existing comments

Surprising how few Australians actually know about Indonesia, its politics and history.

Michael Christian | 03 July 2019  

A very clear analysis of a significant issue. Great to be informed of some specific facts to back up the generalized rhetoric we are all familiar with. Thank you

Anonymous | 04 July 2019  

In a way, Indonesia's version of democracy and the formal relationship between religion and the state is unique and evolving. So it draws on models elsewhere. It hasn't helped for Western democracies to be turning to selfish, inept and introverted governments all the while duplicitously supporting the most corrupt and repressive Islamic states. In this context, the stability and maturity of Indonesian institutions is impressive and reassuring.

Mike Westerman | 04 July 2019  

Excellent piece Nicholas. Informative and balanced. There's another reason why we should all be breathing a sigh of relief that Prabowo has again failed to be elected or to have the result reversed in his favour. He represents the discredited old regime (Orba), the past, particularly its predilection for violence. Everything Prabowo has been involved in has been tainted with violence: his sorry military record in East Timor over 20 years, in Jakarta in 1998 and the recent deaths and violence in Jakarta you refer to, to name some. He has escaped accountability but the electorate has wisely rejected him a second time. Let's hope he gets the message!

Pat Walsh | 04 July 2019  

Thank you Nicholas for your thoughts on the recent Indonesian presidential election results. Most observers of Indonesia are much happier that Joko Widodo (Jokowi) was re-elected as president over the former general Prabowo Subianto. It is well known that Prabowo played a dreadful role in East Timor during the 24 brutal occupation by the Indonesian military (TNI) and was responsible for the shooting of democratic student demonstrators during the fall of the fascist Indonesian dictatorship led by General Suharto. I find that I have to respectfully disagree with you when you claim that Indonesia's democratic systems are working well. It is true that there have been improvements in the freedom of the media in the country after the fall of Suharto, but the TNI still wields massive clout in Indonesian politics today and very much hampers any chance of true democracy in Indonesia. When Jokowo was first elected president, he promised West Papuans that their human rights would be protected and that they would be given greater autonomy. This has not happened because of the control of the brutal and very corrupt TNI and the Indonesian Police (POLRI) in that country. West Papua, a nation of Melanesian people, was to have received its independence from the Dutch in the early 1960s, but due to US intervention, the Indonesians were able to take over in 1962. Then, in 1965 following the TNI coup against former president Sukarno aided and abetted by the CIA, conditions became much worse for the West Papuans. Ever since 1962, the TNI and POLRI have committed genocide and gross human rights abuses against the West Papuans - which are still continuing today. The abuses include sickening crimes like torture, rape, extradicial executions and even evisceration. These sorts of crimes were also committed in East Timor, Acheh and parts of Indonesia where there has been political unrest (eg the Malaku Province). In addition, former TNI general Wiranto has been a minister of the Jokowi cabinet and he is a UN indicted war criminal for crimes carried out in the later days of the TNI occupation in East Timor. Even a more progressive politician like Jokowi will not openly address what happened in the events leading up to the Suharto dictatorship. In my opinion, a nation that cannot control its military or police when it commits such human rights violations, refuses to examine its dreadful past and allows war criminals to walk free cannot claim to have a healthy democracy. On another point: you mentioned that the 1965 TNI/CIA coup that ushered in the 33 year nightmare of the Suharto dictatorship was precipitated by an attempted coup organised by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Historians now agree that it was Suharto and his fellow conspirators who had 6 generals murdered and then sheeted the blame onto the PKI. The TNI with militias carried out one of the most significant bloodbaths of the 20th century which was admitted by the CIA itself even though it assistedby drawing up death lists. Amnesty International (AI) estimated that the death toll was between 1/2 to a million people. Many Indonesians have told me that the number was nearer 3 million. According to Herb Feith, the former respected politics professor at Monash University who worked in Indonesia as a volunteer for some years, the PKI was the only political party that was dedicated to lifting the Indonesian peasantry and the urban poor out of poverty. For readers who are interested in this disturbing history, I am including a few websites that give more information: http://www.namebase.net:82/kadane.html https://www.globalresearch.ca/historian-says-us-backed-efficacious-terror-in-1965-indonesian-massacre/14254 https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/10/the-indonesia-documents-and-the-us-agenda/543534/ https://indonesiaatmelbourne.unimelb.edu.au/theres-now-clear-proof-that-soeharto-orchestrated-the-1965-killings/ https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jun/07/joshua-oppenheimer-the-look-of-silence-interview-indonesia https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/30/it-is-50-years-since-the-indonesian-genocide-of-1965-but-we-cannot-look-away

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 04 July 2019  

Following the phrase "attempted PKI coup", I had intended sending my objection to this Suharto mythology (still, as far as I know, supported by annual broadcasting of "official" movie supporting such a slur), but Andy Alcock has said it all, and more. "Democrat-isasi" vastly over-rated. Growing danger of slipping back to old power sharing between mosque and TNI.

Pat Mahony | 05 July 2019  

An excellent summary of a very complex situation. I will share the article through facebook and whats ap, Nicholas. Congratulations.

Hank van Apeldoorn | 06 July 2019  

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