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Is Indonesia’s Grand Experiment with Democracy Coming to an End?

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The Debate | Opinion | Southeast Asia

Is Indonesia’s Grand Experiment with Democracy Coming to an End?

A push to allow President Joko Widodo to run for a third term threatens to erode the foundations of the country’s multiparty system.

Is Indonesia’s Grand Experiment with Democracy Coming to an End?

People cast their votes in parliamentary and presidential elections in Tanah Abang district, Jakarta, Indonesia on April 17, 2019.

Credit: Depositphotos

Almost a quarter of a century ago, in the midst of the Asian financial crisis in May 1998, Indonesia’s economy literally came to a standstill. The rupiah had crashed, tycoons were going bankrupt and losing their business empires. University students were filling the streets of cities across the archipelago demanding the resignation of then President Suharto, and after the tragic shooting of students in the yard of Trisakti University in Jakarta, protests became even larger and led to complete chaos. Indonesia was literally on the brink of collapse.

Suharto was reluctant at first to succumb to calls for him to step down. After more than three decades in power, he found himself surrounded by sycophants telling him that could ride out the wave of protests and manage to stay in office. Yet in his final days in the palace, realizing that if he ordered the military to come down hard on the protesters it could easily end in a bloodbath, Suharto came to his senses and realized he was playing the equivalent of a zero-sum game on a sinking ship.

On May 21, Suharto announced his resignation, and the New Order regime, which had overseen an economic success story yet was stained with violence and oppression, came to an end.

The only question at the time was, what would the next chapter look like? Would Suharto’s previous vice president and successor, B.J. Habibie, prove to be an authoritarian as well, or would he meet Indonesians’ demands for sweeping political reform?

As a former university student who protested against the Suharto regime in the 1970s only to find myself in jail, I waited with trepidation. Throughout his career Habibie was seen as a subservient acolyte of Suharto and his clan; his career offered no hints that he would end up becoming a reformist. And the fact that he was surrounded by men who had spent their years in power under Suharto as well made me pessimistic about our future.

What happened next came as a complete surprise to Habibie’s naysayers, including myself. Instead of clamping down on pro-democracy activists, Habibie announced that democratic elections would be held three years earlier than scheduled. He also liberalized the press, oversaw the lifting of restrictions on political parties and the decentralization of political powers, effectively granting local governments a much greater control over their affairs.

These sweeping reforms marked the beginning of Indonesia’s democratic transition. When Habibie’s successor, Abdurrahman Wahid, came to power in the latter part of 1999, he managed to negotiate peace agreements with separatist groups in the provinces of Aceh and Papua. Wahid, the former head of the world’s largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, quickly became a well-known figure on the global stage as a voice for moderate Islam, at one point even suggesting that Indonesia open up diplomatic relations with Israel.

Indonesia now held center stage as one of the world’s more prestigious democracies, ranking as the third largest and the largest in the entire Muslim world. It was held up as a shining example of what other Muslim majority countries could, and should, aspire to.

It was during Wahid’s stay in power that I served in his cabinet. Wahid made it known when he was first elected that he would prefer men and women who were previously staunch Suharto critics to serve in his cabinet. I was one of them, and after entering office my colleagues and I went about instituting economic and institutional reforms as part of our efforts to root out corruption in places such as the National Logistics Agency, and set out policies that formed the foundations for a quicker and sustainable economic recovery.

For the most part, we achieved our goals. Not only was Indonesia a vibrant democracy, it was now firmly on the path to economic growth and on a more equitable basis than ever before.

Wahid was not without his faults, one of which was an erratic leadership style that resulted in his earning a number of political enemies. Tycoons were unhappy as well since Wahid had no qualms about going after the rich and powerful. He could be fearless when it came to facing down those who he felt were on the wrong side of what he perceived as the nation’s interest.

The wolves were circling, and one early morning the military also made its dissatisfaction known by sending tanks to the palace grounds with its turrets pointed toward the president’s residence. As one conglomerate owner was overheard one day talking to his friends, “don’t worry, it is only a matter of time before we get him.”

Political elites and the military leadership decided to take action by calling for the president’s impeachment and dismissal from office after he issued a decree to dissolve the Indonesian legislatures and disband the Golkar Party, which was former president Suharto’s party and arguably still the most powerful in the country. In one fell swoop Wahid had managed to make mortal enemies out of nearly the entire political establishment.

Wahid saw this as an attempt to drain the proverbial political swamp, but rather than cleansing Indonesia’s politics it ended up devouring him. Finally, during a special plenary session of the People’s Consultative Assembly held on July 23, 2001, a majority of the legislators voted for Wahid to be dismissed from his presidency.

Wahid’s successors, first his vice president Megawati Sukarnoputri who replaced him and served for the remainder of his five year term, and then retired general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, continued with the reform of Indonesian politics. Political stability and democracy were firmly in place, and as Indonesia’s economy rose to become the 17th largest in the world, the future seemed incredibly bright.

That was then, but some things have gone horribly wrong since. With the ascent to power of Joko Widodo, better known simply as Jokowi to Indonesians, there has been a steady and dramatic reversal in our democratic institutions and norms.

As an indicator of Indonesia’s democratic backsliding, one need only refer to the Economist Group’s annual Democracy Index. In 2017, Indonesia fell 20 places in the index from 48th to 68th, making it the worst performer among the 165 countries surveyed, sliding from “flawed democracy” toward the “authoritarian” end of the scale.

Such a dramatic reversal is not only saddening. It is also a huge disappointment for me and the many Indonesians who voted Jokowi into office. When he first ran for the presidency in 2014, this former mayor and small business owner from Central Java came across as an easy-going personality and a man of the people. The fact that Jokowi didn’t hail from the Jakarta elite classes or the military as previous presidents had, led voters to believe he would prove to be a new and better class of politician.

They were wrong.

To be fair to Jokowi, he should not be entirely blamed for Indonesia’s ills. I had the pleasure of serving as coordinating minister in the earlier part of his presidency, and what I saw was a decent man with good intentions.

But decency and good intentions do not necessarily make for a good leader. Unfortunately Jokowi treats his coalition partners and cabinet members with kid gloves, and all too often they too easily get their way even when it is painfully obvious their behavior and actions cause harm to the national and public interest.

I was dismissed from my position in the Jokowi administration because more than once I spoke the truth when politicians were being dishonest or worse. Now I am back on the sidelines, much like I was during the Suharto years, and playing the role as an activist, public intellectual, and critic.

The freedom of speech, the right to express oneself and most importantly being careful to present the facts even if it means being critical of those in power and exposing hard truths is crucial in any democracy. When those rights are denied, democracy inevitably suffers. Unfortunately this is precisely what is happening now. Indonesians who post critiques of the president and the political establishment on social media are warned and must have the posts removed or otherwise face the consequences. Critics like myself are openly ridiculed by Jokowi’s henchmen and threatened with lawsuits for blasphemy. The truth is no longer treated with respect; it is considered the enemy.

To the dismay of many Indonesians, Jokowi has lately fallen into the practice of promoting family members into positions of power and influence. The dynastic excesses of Jokowi have gone beyond even those of former presidents Sukarno, Suharto, Habibie, and Wahid. Jokowi was, for example, successful in promoting his son Gibran to become the mayor of Solo and his son-in-law Bobby to become mayor of Medan. His sister is also married to the chief of the Constitutional Court. All of these are clearly conflicts of interest.

There is a risk that Indonesia’s democratic backsliding could become even worse. Right now there are party bosses lobbying behind closed doors to get a supermajority vote in a bid to amend Indonesia’s constitution that would effectively allow the president to serve three five-year terms in office. If it happens, then Jokowi could conceivably win and end up serving 15 years as Indonesia’s president.

So far these party bosses have come up short of securing the supermajority they need. But anything can happen in Indonesia’s transactional politics, so the possibility should not be entirely dismissed.

Extending the presidential term limit could prove the final death blow for Indonesia’s democracy. Enough damage has already been done, and if the men around Jokowi get their way there will hardly be any difference between today’s regime and Suharto’s New Order. For a country that was once admired for being one of the world’s best democracies, such an outcome would be extraordinarily tragic.