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The Curious Case of Indonesia’s “Democracy”

Indonesians have democracy, but some still miss the old authoritarian days. 


Is Indonesia’s democracy really blooming? If you read the English-speaking press, you might think the answer is a resounding yes. Papers in London and New York have applauded President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s cabinet picks and hailed his government as a post-authoritarian success story. Democracy is consolidating and the economy is growing, they say, thanks to Yudhoyono’s stewardship over the past five years. Why else would more than 60 percent of the electorate have voted for him in recent elections?

If you read the local press, however, a very different narrative emerges.

Since the strongman Suharto stepped down 11 years ago, democracy hasn’t really taken hold, nor is it widely accepted by the public. In a 2006 Indonesian Survey Institute poll, only about 70 percent of Indonesians said they even thought favorably of democracy. Two years later, this number had dropped another 10 percent, mostly due to growing disillusionment with elected officials — more and more of whom became corrupt as economic conditions worsened. And the military, which once propped up the oppressive regime, now receives higher favorability ratings than most other public institutions.

Additionally, apathy has seeped into the voting population. The number of voters has dwindled since the 1999 presidential contest, the first free and fair election after Suharto, in which more than 90 percent of the electorate participated. Today, 30 percent don’t bother to fill out a ballot. The statistics for local elections are even worse.

Voters are unhappy about economic issues. In this country of around 230 million, more than 35 million live in a state of dire poverty, but in 2008, $75 billion in wealth belonged to just 150 people. Furthermore, corruption is unimpeded, making life difficult for Indonesia’s poor. The number of public and elected officials implicated in graft cases more than quintupled between 2005 and 2008, to 444, according to Indonesian Corruption Watch.

And so, the public increasingly resents its democratic institutions and their efforts, even reminiscing about the "good old days" of stability under Suharto — as most believe economic conditions were better then.  A 2008 poll by one local daily found that almost 70 percent of Indonesians thought negatively of parliament, and more than half felt that legislators passed laws which went against their interests. Recently, some Indonesians, including prominent retired generals, have called for welfare, not freedom, to be the yardstick — echoing earlier calls for the restoration of the executive-heavy 1945 constitution. One retired general lamented that "Our elections have moved away from a consensual democracy to a liberal, one-man-one-vote democracy," and amid decreasing living standards, that this "could potentially disrupt national unity."

So what accounts for the difference between foreign and domestic accounts of Indonesian democracy?

First, Indonesia had its democracy imposed from the top down by political elites following Suharto’s abdication. Decentralized, grassroots, and organic democratic institutions, like political parties, have not had the time to take root. Thus, it might appear to outside observers that Indonesia’s democracy is strong, since there has not been any serious election-related violence, demonstrations and ensuing crackdowns, or countermovements since the end of Suharto’s reign. But the country’s democracy is actually shallow, a fact apparent to Indonesians.

The prevalence of pollsters and political consultants has given further credibility to the facade of Indonesia’s robust democracy. Political candidates and the government itself have spent millions on advertising purchases: $350 million in 2008 and 2009 alone, according to one Nielsen report. Analysts believe that local parliamentary candidates need to spend at least $30,000 to run, and presidential candidates at least $100 million. Those estimates do not include the millions in informal donations and expenses required. The money spent gives the appearance of a real democracy, but precludes poor and middle-class candidates from running and prevents the best candidates from winning.

The differing foreign and domestic understandings might also be a function of how outsiders judge democracy between countries. Indonesia scores well on the "political freedom" metric in the Freedom House index, but Indonesians widely view national and local legislators as unaccountable. Thus, Indonesia seems more democratic than its neighbors, but that hardly means that Indonesians find themselves in a functioning democracy. Thus, foreign observers might see broad, general indicators of democracy, but fail to capture the more specific, in-depth nuances of what those indicators mean locally.

Finally, it is also possible that the observers themselves have misread the phenomena. Most long-time Indonesia-watchers in the academic and think-tank worlds started studying the country during the Suharto era. At that time, the way to understand Indonesia was to obtain insight from the elites surrounding the regime. The strategy worked then, but it doesn’t now; political power is more diverse and dispersed. Some younger scholars have realized this and have started interviewing outside of the small circle of elites. But given the language, political, and cultural barriers, it may take some time before the study of Indonesia is as diverse as the country itself.

Some valuable insights from grassroots campaign organizers and political operators, such as studies like this one by Achmad Uzair Fauzan of Indonesia’s Lafadl Initiatives, have likely been lost along the way. For example, Fauzan reports that, despite the perception abroad that Indonesia’s democracy is developing well, with just minor electoral mismanagement, the reality on the ground is less straightforward. He found evidence of vote-buying by grassroots organizers and clear signs of tampering on voter rolls. One activist who ran for parliament noted that money and popularity couldn’t get you a seat if your voters weren’t listed.

Ultimately, thus, democracy in Indonesia isn’t nearly as robust as it sometimes seems. Further, democracy matters less to most Indonesians than economic well-being and good governance. This deeper understanding is vital for international donors, who believe that democracy is "maturing" and are thus winding down monetary support for monitored elections. In 1999, Western donors gave close to $100 million in support for elections. In 2004, that had dropped to $85 million. This year, donations totaled just $15 million. This has not only reduced the quality of electoral management, but has also hampered efforts to deepen grassroots democracy.

For the international community to continue praising Indonesia’s elites for their "democratic stewardship" while cutting back aid is to reward the wrong people for the wrong reasons — and Indonesia’s civil society is at stake.

Evan A. Laksmana is a senior researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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