Indonesia’s Disaster Politics

The latest earthquake and tsunami could be a major setback for the country’s democracy.

A woman cooks beside her tent at a temporary shelter in Palu, Indonesia, on Oct. 9. (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
A woman cooks beside her tent at a temporary shelter in Palu, Indonesia, on Oct. 9. (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

On Sept. 28, 2018, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck Indonesia near the island of Sulawesi. The earthquake was shallow, and the violent shaking destroyed a large number of buildings in the area. The quake also triggered a tsunami that destroyed a large portion of the coastal city of Palu. By Oct. 3, the death toll in Sulawesi was estimated to be over 1,300.

The Indonesian archipelago is prone to such disasters, and the country has a long history of enormous destruction and loss of life. Most recently, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killed at least 225,000 people. Following that catastrophe, Indonesia and its international partners deployed an advanced tsunami warning system that has been operational since 2008 and under the control of Indonesian authorities since 2011.

Officials’ motivation for launching that system was, in part, Indonesia’s relatively recent democratization. As Alastair Smith and I argued in 2010, “In a democracy, leaders must maintain the confidence of large portions of the population in order to stay in power. To do so, they need to protect the people from natural disasters.” Since Indonesia had become a democracy in 1998 and had held its first direct presidential election just months before the 2004 tsunami, the country’s new leaders were thus under enormous pressure to do something after the disaster—or risk eventually losing their jobs. Their decision to deploy the warning system was, without doubt, a good step.

This fall, however, that system did not live up to its promise. It—and the organization responsible for its maintenance—are now under scrutiny because key components failed and because the actual tsunami warning was apparently inadequate and short. In an established democracy such as the United States, such a show of governmental unreliability would typically lead to a wave of resignations, or at least depositions. In Indonesia’s young democracy, by contrast, political breakdown could follow.

In the grand scheme of things, Indonesia’s 20-year record of rule by the people is rather short. And in the first several of those 20 years, the transition was mostly determined by political power brokers at the heart of the legislative branch, which was ultimately in charge of electing the head of government. It is really only since 2004 that politicians have been accountable to the public in any meaningful way.

Over time, those elected officials should face powerful pressure to protect citizens (or provide aid to them after a disaster) in order to hold on to power. But that incentive doesn’t develop overnight. It is only slowly that leaders and the public build a reliable exchange of “good governance” for political backing, particularly in highly factionalized countries such as Indonesia. And, there, politicians seem to have fallen into the all-too-common trap of looking for short-term personal gain—taking money from state cash reserves, engaging in conspicuous consumption, or accepting bribes and favors from private businesses—rather than setting up their country for long-term success.

In a more robust democracy, a natural disaster does not usually undermine democratic institutions, even if it harms the career prospects of underperforming elected officials. However, when a destructive disaster is combined with incompetence in a transitional country like Indonesia, that could be a setback. In Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, the inadequate provision of disaster relief led to looting and the near-total discrediting of democratic institutions. In the wake of the latest earthquake in Indonesia, the government has invited the military to step in to deliver aid, which is worrying given the armed forces’ historical role in undermining elected officials. Throw in endemic poverty, inequality, and corruption, and this month’s earthquake and tsunami could put pressure on an already strained democratization process.

Even worse, Indonesia’s elected officials will likely be tested again soon. The country has a population of approximately 260 million people, with over 80 percent living in the island of Java, which includes Jakarta. (Sulawesi, in contrast, accounts for about 10 percent of Indonesia’s population.) Thanks to climate change and sea-level rise, Jakarta has become the fastest-sinking city in the world. Now and increasingly in the future, Indonesia’s capital will be prone not only to earthquakes and tsunamis, but also to severe flooding that will affect a critical mass of voters.

The historical record shows that democracies that are able to sustain long-term, widespread protection of their population against natural hazards are more likely to survive. If Jakarta’s democratic system keeps failing in the face of worsening natural disasters, it might be consigned to the dustbin. Democratization did pave the way for improving protection to the country, and this has saved considerable lives and property. However, demography, climate change, the legacy of autocracy, corruption, and poverty are preventing democratic politicians from sustaining these efforts in the long run—and that could be their undoing.

Alejandro Quiroz Flores is a senior lecturer in the Department of Government at the University of Essex.