At face value the regimes which have followed The New Order have done an outstanding job at creating a state in which democracy is at the center. Upon a closer look, there are some red flags which should signal to the rest of the world that Indonesia’s democracy may not be as stable as some were led to believe. Furthermore I believe that while most changes in Indonesia’s transition to a democracy were absolutely necessary, they have become stagnant and are no longer on a course to complete democratization.
In order to understand why Indonesia has been boasting about it’s new found democratic tendencies, we must first understand why they are so important. Prior to the Indonesian Revolution in 1998, Indonesia was dictated by an authoritarian regime known as The New Order, lead by President Suharto. Under his rule, he sought to dismantle any remnants of communism left by The Old Order and diminish participation in the political process by the general public, he maintained power by suppressing opposition and having the strength of the military to back him. By all standards of the litmus test for authoritarian leaders, Suharto meets them: he rejected democratic institutions, denied legitimacy of opposition, tolerated violence, and curtailed civil liberties. It is clear to see how Suharto did not fit the mold of what a democratic leader should look like.
Because Indonesia was emerging from such a place of corruption and oppression there can be a sort of bias moving forward. Compared to where they had been many types of institutions and regimes seem much more democratic than previous authoritarian policies. It is no wonder that after the revolution Indonesia claimed to be a democracy and many on the outside looking in were convinced of this new fate. For example, free and fair elections, free press, and more civil liberties are very promising signs of democracy. Unfortunately, these small tokens are not enough to establish what is considered a stable democracy, much more still has to be done.
Under the new President Yudhoyono who was elected in 2005 and re-elected in 2009, not much has improved. While overall living conditions, economic conditions, and civil rights conditions have dramatically improved, legislation solidifying liberties and democratic institutions is still yet to be seen and this is where many critics find problems. There is a weak legislative and bureaucracy with which to enforce certain laws which were added to the new constitution. Current laws which are put in place to protect and enable people to use their voice are often times counteracted by other laws in the constitution which in a sense curtail these rights. For example, a free press and freedom of speech are included in the constitution which would lead any other democracy reading it to allocate them a higher freedom score. This liberty is counteracted by other legislation though which aims to minimize the voices others can have, such as the laws against blasphemy and defamation. These laws are often cited when media chooses to speak out against the government. So although Indonesia appears to have a free and fair press, do they really?
Another area where Indonesia faces corruption is bribery. Although there are staunch laws against such things, this sort of toxic activity seems so regular and sneaks into many sectors. For example, bribery is heavy in the judicial branch at all levels with patrons seeking to change the outcome for their benefit. This sort of corruption can be seen in the police force as well which receives many bribes both big and small. Finally, the public service sector is an area with a surprising amount of bribes as well, with many feeling this is necessary to get anything done. Overall, corruption is still a problem in Indonesia even after the New Order, it is just less apparent and done in a more private manner to avoid prosecution.
All in all, I think Indonesia has come a long way from when it first gained freedom in the 20th century. The people have been faced with a variety of regimes along the spectrum ranging from a controlling authoritarian regime to a budding democracy. But, I think it is much too early to make any blanketed statements and declare Indonesia as an established democracy. If anything, the state has just become better at hiding things such as election fraud, police and judicial corruption, and suppression of the opposition. Although I think these characteristics are prevalent in many other countries with high freedom scores, including the United States, a new democracy needs to be able to maintain steady growth and weed out as many undemocratic tendencies as possible early on rather than found their beliefs on them. Corruption is inevitable and can largely be facilitated by individuals, but it is the state’s job to detect this and put an end to it before it is all-consuming rather than in a sense encourage it through participation as I feel Indonesia has done. Furthermore, Indonesia was coming from a very low place on the spectrum of freedom, therefore I believe this is why so many are quick to celebrate rather than criticize the new president. In conclusion, while Indonesia’s growth and development since 1998 is impressive, they have lost sight of the bigger picture and become comfortable in their current position rather than continuing to pursue democracy.
Image by: Jokowi Dan Basuki
Sources used: http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2009/10/26/how-is-indonesias-democracy-doing/