President Joko Widodo needs to recognise that Indonesia’s international reputation is shaped not just by economic parameters but also by its human rights record. Photo by Puspa Perwitasari for Antara.


Last month saw an unprecedented attack on one of the oldest and most influential civil society organisations in Indonesia, the Legal Aid Foundation (LBH), which was hosting a discussion on the killings of 1965-66. Police seemed unable or unwilling to do their job and initially sided with demonstrators to prevent the discussion from going ahead.


Never before had a discussion at LBH been broken up by state authorities, not even under Soeharto. Civil society activists characterised the attack as a democratic emergency, criticising President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo for failing to protect human rights. But are we seeing the emergence of a ‘Neo-New Order’? Is Indonesian democracy really in peril?


First of all, a reality check. Indonesian democracy is far from perfect but many aspects are functioning well. Indonesia holds regular peaceful, free and fair elections at both regional and national levels; citizens are free to establish political parties (including local political parties in Aceh); the country has arguably the freest press in the region; and it boasts a vibrant civil society.


Second, Jokowi simply does not have it in him to develop into an authoritarian leader. For all his flaws, Jokowi truly believes in democracy and the rule of law. And even if he wanted to, Jokowi does not have the power to become a strongman – he lacks strong ties to the military and he is not the leader of a political party.


But there are reasons for concern. The military continues to harbour resentment about its diminished role in civilian affairs in democratic Indonesia. While the military as an institution no longer has any political role, senior sitting and retired generals retain an outsized influence over Indonesian politics.


Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) Commander General Gatot Nurmantyo, for example, has hardly been reticent about his political ambitions. Many observers have the impression that Gatot supported the hard-line organisations that led the protests against former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, and many were worried when Jokowi seemed unable to bring him into line.


There is also a persistent belief among the armed forces (and indeed many members of the population) that only the military can unite the country. The military does not trust civilians or political parties, which it views as corrupt and engaged in unhealthy competition. Although there are no calls for the army to intervene yet, it has happened in the past.


Indonesian democracy also faces the challenge of rising Islamic conservatism. The past few years have seen the re-emergence of calls for a greater role for Islam in the Indonesian state. Some politicians are now even openly calling for the implementation of Islamic law in the country, basing these demands on the fact that the majority of Indonesians are Muslims. This has been coupled with the so-called “conservative turn” in the daily practice of Indonesian Islam, which has been amplified through inflammatory social media posts and intolerant public sermons at mosques. The deeply polarised Jakarta gubernatorial election demonstrated how easily conservative understandings of Islamic identity can now be mobilised for political ends.


Another problem that could have serious implications for the quality of Indonesian democracy is stagnating economic growth. It now sits at around 5.2 per cent, which is simply not high enough. Foreign domestic investment is moderating on the back of the political tensions associated with the Jakarta election and endemic and persistent corruption. While the tax amnesty program had some success, tax revenues seem to be declining. Some progress has been made in a few of Jokowi’s large infrastructure projects, such as the Jakarta MRT, but the president needs more investment to finance his ambitious plans, and that is simply not forthcoming.


At the same time as economic growth slows, Indonesia is also seeing widening income inequality. The richest 10 per cent of households now control more than three quarters of total wealth in Indonesia. According to a recent survey conducted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the main difficulties faced by the people are economic in nature. Topping the list of complaints were the high cost of basic commodities, unemployment and poverty. It will be hard to maintain a stable democracy in these economic circumstances.


Further, while Indonesia has a strong procedural democracy, its party politics are dysfunctional. The country’s political parties are ideologically shallow and prone to forming coalitions with almost no consideration for policy consistency. However, this appears to matter little to voters.


Political parties are also blighted by the scourge of money politics. Indonesia’s weak party funding system encourages corruption and the dominance of oligarchs. Running as even a district head can cost billions of rupiah. Huge sums of money are needed to pay parties just to be considered for candidacy in the first place and then to fund the subsequent election campaign. Having shelled out billions of rupiah, politicians need to find a way to recoup their investment, and they often turn to state-funded projects to do so. Unless there is a radical change in political party financing, money politics will continue to taint Indonesian politics.


As a result, oligarchs will determine what kind of democracy Indonesia will have in the future. Perversely, they may end up being strong defenders of democracy, as they rely on the democratic system to compete with one another.


The final cause for concern relates to declining human rights protections. As LBH and other civil society organisations have warned, Jokowi seems to have abandoned his promise to resolve past violations of human rights. The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) is looking increasingly weak. The endorsement of Jokowi’s Regulation in Lieu of Law (Perppu) on Mass Organisations by the national legislature on 24 October represents a major setback for freedom of association. On top of this, widespread use of defamation laws (particularly the Electronic Information and Transactions Law) to silence government critics has seen growing self-censorship in the media. Jokowi needs to recognise that Indonesia’s international reputation is shaped not just by economic parameters but also by its human rights record.


The 2018 regional elections will be pivotal in determining the shape of Indonesian democracy. Will the base appeals to race and religion that tarnished the Jakarta election campaign be replicated in other regions? If Jokowi loses allies in West Java and East Java (and the provinces are taken over by more conservative or less democratic leaders) his prospects for re-election in 2019 will take another hit.


These are all serious concerns, and there is no doubt that Indonesian democracy is fragile. But there are good reasons to be optimistic that Indonesia will not return to authoritarian, military dominated rule. While the military continues to look for opportunities to play a greater role in civilian affairs, it is not united. All former military chiefs have harboured political ambitions but few have been successful. Despite the military’s wishes for a greater role in public life, and despite the widespread view that it could unite the country in an emergency, I believe Indonesians do not see the situation as even close to justifying military rule.


In fact, democracy in Indonesia may already have reached “the point of no return”. The amended Constitution provides a strong basis for democracy. In Indonesia’s fragmented and fractured political system it would be very difficult to build the consensus required to amend it again, and even harder to abandon it. Democracy in Indonesia may be flawed and incomplete but I believe it is here to stay.



This post is based on a presentation delivered at Melbourne Law School on 11 October 2017. Professor Lubis also discussed these issues with Dr Jemma Purdey in the most recent Talking Indonesia podcast.


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