What on Earth Do Indonesians Think About Democracy?

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What on Earth Do Indonesians Think About Democracy?

Making sense of a 2023 Pew survey that showed majority support for representative democracy, autocracy, and rule by the military.

What on Earth Do Indonesians Think About Democracy?

Supporters of Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto attend his final campaign rally at a stadium in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 10, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/Prabowo Subianto

For months leading up to Indonesia’s presidential elections in February, and in the weeks since, a good number of talking heads have been trying to parse whether President-elect Prabowo Subianto’s victory would signal a decline in Indonesia’s democracy or a victory for pluralism – or whether things would remain pretty much the same as before. One is inclined to think the latter, although that’s mostly a reflection of the deterioration of democracy under Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the outgoing president. And your columnist has pointed out that it says something that most Indonesians were willing to ignore accusations of Prabowo’s war crimes in Timor-Leste – and, indeed, were willing to pick open the scab of history by electing an alleged war criminal.

But the fact that 128 million people turned out to vote in a rather orderly affair suggests that elections are at least stable in Indonesia, even if liberalism isn’t. But give an eye to a Pew Research Centre poll released last month on global opinions on democracy and authoritarianism. It was carried out in 2023. Indonesia was the sole representative from Southeast Asia.

Looking at the results for some hours researching this column, I struggled to make heads or tails of it. At first blush, everything seems normal. Some 76 percent of Indonesian respondents said that representative democracy (“where representatives elected by their citizens decide what becomes law”) is favorable. In fact, 47 percent said it was “somewhat good” and 29 percent said “very good.” Just a tenth said it was “somewhat” or “very” bad.

Indonesians were more likely than any of the nationalities surveyed (except Indians and Swedes) to say that their elected officials actually care about what ordinary people think. Some 58 percent said they felt represented by at least one political party, a far better rating than most nationalities gave their parties. Go into the appendix of this survey and you’ll also find that Indonesians held among the most favorable views of their current leader (Jokowi) and the opposition leader (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in this poll). Indonesians also rated their political parties more favorably than almost any nationality in the survey.

So, most Indonesians think highly of representative democracy and their representatives. They don’t feel alienated by their political parties or national leaders. Based on these findings, you might think that they’d have little interest in alternative political systems. Wrong! When asked their thoughts on a strongman leader who makes law unencumbered by parliament or the courts, 51 percent of Indonesians said this would be somewhat or very good. Only 33 percent said it would be somewhat or very bad. In fact, a higher percentage said it would be “very good” than “very bad.” Some 67 percent also said they would be happy with rule by experts, not elected officials.

And then the question turned to whether it would be good if the military ruled the country. A whopping 48 percent of Indonesians said it would be “somewhat good” and 21 percent “very good.” Only 18 percent thought it would be a bad thing.  So 69 percent of Indonesians would welcome military rule, yet 76 percent of this exact same respondent group also liked representative democracy.

Say what you like about the creeping authoritarian mindset in the West (23 percent of Americans polled in this survey thought representative democracy was bad!), but at least their respondents were consistent. Some 86 percent of Germans thought representative democracy was good, while just 13 percent of Germans thought strongman leadership and 6 percent thought military rule was good. It was the same for almost all the other countries: a similar percentage of people who disliked democracy liked autocracy or military rule. Which makes sense. If you don’t favor representative democracy, you presumably favor something else. Or, if you want military rule, you presumably don’t also think that representative democracy is a good idea.

But not Indonesians. According to this survey, a majority like representative democracy and their current representatives, and a majority would also like autocracy or military rule. How does one square this circle? Maybe it was the questions asked by the pollsters, but, to me at least, these didn’t seem overly confusing nor would necessarily lead one to contradictory answers.

Nor was it the case that the Indonesian respondents were saying yes to everything. Indonesians were the least likely of the 24 surveyed countries to think that politics would improve if more women were elected (just 29 percent said it would). They were the third least likely to think politics would improve if there were more politicians from poor backgrounds (37 percent thought it would). And they were the fifth-least to say things would improve with more younger people holding office (40 percent). They were, however, above the average in thinking that politics would improve if more businesspeople and trade unionists ran for office. They scored second-highest (after Nigeria) in wanting religious folk to enter politics.

One might draw the conclusion that most Indonesians don’t care about what political system they live under. The majority would be happy under a representative democracy or military rule. What’s more likely is that the category differences between representative democracy, autocracy, and militarism have broken down to such an extent that, perhaps, they’ve become nearly impossible to separate. One can, as this survey suggests, favor all at the same time.

The election of Prabowo, which happened around a year after these surveys were taken, encapsulates this category creep. For decades, he has presented himself as a prospective strongman ruler. He is from the military (and a very notorious part of the military) and spoke up his military credentials. According to some reports, he has spoken of “being ready to be called a fascist dictator.” Yet he was elected as president via a representative system. So, in a sense, you have a species of autocratic militarism within a representative system. So, perhaps, it isn’t odd that the majority of the Indonesian respondents surveyed can think simultaneously that representative democracy, autocracy, and military rule are all favorable.