Scholars: Indonesia’s Democratic Gains Eroding Under Jokowi

Ronna Nirmala
200925_ID_Democracy_1000.jpg Student protesters try to flee as police fire tear gas during a demonstration against the government's proposed change in its criminal code and plans to weaken the anti-corruption commission, outside the parliament building in Jakarta, Sept. 24, 2019.

Twenty-two years after the fall of a longtime autocratic president ushered in a new era of democracy in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest country has been backsliding under the leadership of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in hard-fought democratic reforms, according to analysts.

The administration headed by Jokowi, who was hailed as an icon of democracy when he first was elected president in 2014, has to a degree suppressed free speech and criticism and also attempted to undermine checks and balances on government power, scholars said during a two-day online forum that wrapped up on Friday.

The Jokowi government’s move to strip the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) of some of its powers as well as proposed revisions to the Constitutional Court that could undermine its independence are among the examples, according to political scientists who participated in the seminar hosted by the Australian National University.

These examples represent “what could be an unprecedented attack on two of Indonesia’s most important institutions and protectors of democracy,” said Allen Hicken, a research professor in Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Michigan.

The online discussion took place over Wednesday and Friday. It focused on arguments contained in a new book with contributions from various academics, titled “Democracy in Indonesia: From Stagnation to Regression?” and published by the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

According to ISEAS, the book describes “a more far-reaching pattern of democratic regression” under Jokowi that followed a period of democratic stagnation during the second term of his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s second presidential term.

Jokowi and Yudhoyono were among five presidents who led the country at the end of the so-called New Order in May 1998. That’s when President Suharto, the dictator and former army general, resigned, paving the way for the promise of sweeping democratic reforms. He had ruled the country for more than three decades after leading a bloody crackdown in 1965-66 against Indonesian communists and suspected sympathizers, who were blamed for an attempted coup.

Indonesian President Suharto (left) announces his resignation at the presidential palace in Jakarta, after ruling the fourth most populous nation for 32 years, May 21, 1998. [AP]
Indonesian President Suharto (left) announces his resignation at the presidential palace in Jakarta, after ruling the fourth most populous nation for 32 years, May 21, 1998. [AP]


“Indonesia is much more democratic than it was in 1999, and that’s what we hope [for] and perhaps expect, that in the next decade Indonesia’s democracy would expand and deepen, but we don’t see that,” said Hicken, one of the contributors of chapters in the book.

“Indonesia’s democracy doesn’t expand. It doesn’t deepen. It stagnates,” he added.

Democratic norms and institutions were being threatened, with a rise in repression of civil society, government censorship and persecutions of critics, Hicken claimed.

As an example, the House of Representatives last year passed revisions to a law governing the KPK. Critics warned that the amendments would undermine the agency’s independence, such as through establishing a supervisory agency tasked with monitoring the conduct of the commission, whose mission is to fight corruption in a country notorious for dirty lawmakers, officials and police.

The amended law also transformed the KPK from an independent body into a government agency under the executive branch.

In early September, the House of Representatives also passed a revised law governing the Constitutional Court, a legislative action that could weaken the court and undermine its impartiality, critics said.

In 2006, the Constitutional Court annulled a provision in the Criminal Code that had criminalized speech deemed as insulting to the president, ruling that the clause violated the constitution.

The Indonesian government nowadays also increasingly relies on the police and the military to conduct civilian affairs, including handling the COVID-19 pandemic, said Eve Warburton, a researcher at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the co-editor of the book.

“Vigilantism has increased [at] the same time [the] state presence has increased in Indonesia,” she told the discussion.

According to Endy Bayuni, the former editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post who penned the foreword to the book, “democracy in Indonesia is indeed declining.”

“There is a growing consensus among scholars that Indonesia’s democracy is in decline, although in fairness, many new and established democracies around the world are suffering the same fate,” he wrote.

Despite democratic setbacks, the analysts said Indonesia was faring better than other Southeast Asian countries such as such as Thailand and the Philippines.

“There’s not a single country I would trade places with if I’m thinking about democracy. Indonesia is in a better situation than any other Southeast Asian state outside of Timor Leste,” Hicken said.

‘Chaotic’ Indonesian democracy

Wariki Sutikno, director of political affairs and communication at the National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) defended the government against the arguments made by the academics.

Wariko, who was not at the seminar, said Indonesia’s Democratic Index score had risen to nearly 75 points out of a possible 100 points in 2019, from 72.4 the previous year, citing data from the Central Bureau of Statistics. The bureau released its democratic index for 2019 last month.

“From the aspects of political participation and democratic institutions, Indonesia has shown improvements,” he told BenarNews, while acknowledging that civil liberties had suffered a slight regression.

Mohammad Mahfud MD, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, earlier in September described democracy in Indonesia as “chaotic.”

“Because whatever the government does is always considered wrong by some groups,” the minister told another virtual forum on democracy at the time.

“When the government makes a mistake, there’s a public outcry. But when the government walks back, it is still seen as wrong. Therefore, I say, this is a democracy that is awry,” he said.

Mahfud MD said the government had an obligation to maintain unity to prevent democracy from being “explosive.”

“How do you maintain democracy? The answer is by nomocracy,” he said, referring to government based on the rule of law. “All of us must be committed to the rule of law.”

Meanwhile, a survey released in June by Indikator Politik Indonesia, a local pollster, showed that people’s satisfaction with democracy had dropped to 45.2 percent, from 75.6 percent in February this year – before the first cases of the novel coronavirus disease were detected in the country.

The poll rating was the lowest in the last 16 years, Indikator Director Burhanuddin Muhtadi said.

However, even though Indonesians were more dissatisfied with democracy, “people have not lost their faith in democracy,” Burhanuddin said.


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