Although many assume democracies die “at the hands of men with guns,” Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018) stress that there are “other ways to break a democracy”, less dramatic but equally effective, via politicians undermining the democratic system that brought them to power.
When democratic death is a process rather than an event, and there is no “single moment” when potential dictators make their intentions clear, it is difficult for citizens to recognize and therefore react to threats. In other words, there is no guarantee that a democratic state will forever be democratic and be saved from the threat to democracy from within. To avoid democratic erosion, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that political parties should prevent those who pose a threat to democracy from coming to power. Political parties play as an important role as gatekeepers, preventing demagogues from winning party nominations or participating in coalitions.
This raises the question as to how we can make sure political parties act as gatekeepers. In the post-colonial countries in Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia, almost all of the formal institutions were formed by the colonial countries to maintain their control. In Europe, these institutions were democratic, but in the colonies, their role was to prevent rebellions and extract resources rather than as concessions to rebellious citizens during European wars (Tilly, 1985). Therefore, they are unable to hold leaders accountable to their citizens. However, since its independence, efforts to amend the constitution and election rules to adjust to the needs and political aspirations of the people were unsuccessful. Political elites limited citizenship group’s inclusion and remained impervious to societal and non-government organizations.
In the New Order Era (1965-1998), political parties have weak performance and incapable to use their roles properly. instead of making sure to channel people’s aspirations, they tended to support the favor of the president. On the other side, citizens also incapable of holding the political parties accountable due to lack of government transparency, the constraint of individual freedom to share their voice, and limited access to change the policy. However, after the New Order has fallen when Indonesian begin its Reformation era, the political parties remain lack of institutionalization and unorganized. The political parties are relatively new and their infrastructure is not well developed. Also, political parties often experienced internal conflicts between their elites and members that drain their energy and time. Party elites have not yet made the basic rules apparent. A party tradition that respects differences between democratic rivals has not yet grown. Patrimonialism and even feudalism are still strong among the party elite. For this reason, for political parties to function well, there must be a strengthening of political parties so that strong democratic institutions run optimally. Strengthening efforts such as strengthening party platforms, regenerating leadership, increasing political recruitment, and creating internal party cohesiveness are things that must be implemented immediately.
The weak political party institutionalization in Indonesia results in dysfunctional party elites and the inability of its members to deliberate in their role as gatekeepers. As a result, the political parties fail to prevent autocrats from coming to power or being nominated in the electoral competition. In the last national election in 2019, the political parties allowed Prabowo, who is anti-pluralist, to enter the presidential race. As a consequence, the campaign used racially intolerant rhetoric and arguing about the delegitimate of the election and election results. They claimed that the election was rigged and contained electoral frauds holding by the electoral management body, the other presidential candidate, and his supporters. According to Levitsky and Ziblat, this kind of rhetoric is evidence of a threat to democracy because Indonesian existing political parties were incapable of blocking him to come to power and undermine the electoral legitimacy. Thus, if the political parties in Indonesia remain unchanged, the democracy in Indonesia will be eroded from within as an impact of weak political parties’ institutions.
Finally, Indonesia is a rare case of democratic transition and persistence in Southeast Asia. But like many other countries around the world, Indonesia’s democracy increasingly shows signs of fragility and even regression from within. The ultimate symptoms of democratic fragility were diagnosed by the weak democratic institution, especially the political parties as gatekeepers of democratic practices.