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Where is Indonesian Democracy Going?

The year 2019, which will end soon, marks 20 years of democracy in Indonesia. The June 7, 1999 election was the moment Indonesian democracy arose from years of authoritarian rule under the New Order regime.

12 Desember 2019

Now, after two decades have passed, more and more people are skeptical of the future of the country’s democracy.

They acknowledge a number of indicators showing the dynamics of democracy in Indonesia. Being the third-largest democracy in the world since 1999 (after India and the United States), Indonesia has been able to carry out national elections (legislative and presidential) and local elections (for heads of regions) regularly, smoothly and safely.

Political parties are quite lively and passionate. However, from one election to the next, new political parties always emerge from fragments of established parties hit by conflict and division.

This condition is not bad for the consolidation of Indonesian democracy. Civil society (CS) in the form of nonpolitical organizations and advocacy organizations in various fields of life is also still vibrant.

Although there are elements of CS leaders and activists that are dragged into power politics, in general, CS in Indonesia remains a backbone of civic culture and civility that enabled democracy to thrive.

The press is still free and vibrant, even though mainstream media increasingly find it difficult to compete with online and social media. The circulation of newspapers and magazines that used to play an important role in encouraging the growth of democracy has sharply dropped. Some of them have even closed down.

Indonesian democracy is now at its lowest point in 20 years

All of the above indicators may make ordinary people feel that there is nothing lacking in the development of Indonesian democracy. However, looking at certain aspects of political, democratic and legal developments in recent years, more and more experts are asking the question: Where is Indonesian democracy going?

For example, Edward Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner, two experts on Indonesian politics, have stated that Indonesian democracy is now at its lowest point in 20 years (The Jakarta Post, 21/9/2019). In other writings, they noted the increasing “paradox of Indonesian democracy”.

Observing the various aspects of life and political dynamics from the last year of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration until the era of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, we can conclude that Indonesia is not a (full) democracy but has evolved into a kind of illiberal form of democratic government (illiberal democracy). In that context, Indonesia still fulfills the requirements of electoral democracy. However, various other indicators of democracy continue to decline, including a reduction in the freedom of opinion and organization and increasingly weak protection of minority groups.

Many observers and institutions that monitor the growth and dynamics of democracy typically assess the condition of democracy based on the policies of the ruling regime and the political expression of the community, both through political parties and nonpolitical organizations.

Based on this framework, many political experts and scholars of democracy from within and outside of Indonesia arrive at the conclusion that Indonesia’s democracy is in decline, or at its lowest point in the last 20 years.

A case that is often cited in this context is the issuance of Government Regulation in lieu of law Perppu No. 2/2017 as a substitute for Law No. 17/2013 on mass organizations. The Perppu prohibits mass organizations from engaging in separatist activities that threaten the sovereignty of the Republic of Indonesia and / or adhere to, develop or spread understanding or teachings that are contrary to Pancasila.

The Perppu, known as the “antiradicalism” Perppu and adopted by the House of Representatives as Law No. 16/2017, became the legal basis for the ban on the Indonesian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HTI). Quite a few political experts, legal experts and activists view the regulation as a threat to democracy, because it limits the freedom of expression and association.

I myself see it as an essential and urgent regulation to maintain the existence of the Republic of Indonesia and Pancasila, and in turn guarantees democracy to remain a political system.

Apparently, symptoms of the decline in democracy continue to germinate.

However, the perception that Indonesian democracy is suffering a setback is not limited to the regulation on mass organizations.

In the latest developments, more and more people have seen the setback of the democracy with increasing discourse and government efforts to eradicate radicalism, for example by requiring the registration of religious teaching, certification of religious preachers and supervision of lectures by the authorities.

The country seems to be an Orwellian big brother — a big brother who wants to control all activities of citizens. In another aspect, the perception of the decline of Indonesian democracy is also related to the rise in identity politics on the basis of religion. Identity politics, which began to strengthen since the Jakarta provincial election in late 2017, has increased in the 2019 election and continues until now.

Apparently, symptoms of the decline in democracy continue to germinate. One of them is the discourse on increasing the maximum presidential time in office from two to three terms. That emerging discourse, which is related to a planned fifth amendment to the 1945 Constitution, could encourage the growth of political oligarchy and authoritarianism.

President Jokowi’s rejection of the idea to increase the maximum number of presidential terms is no guarantee that there will be no efforts in that direction when the amendment is implemented. It cannot be ruled out that political deals among key actors result in an increase in the number of presidential terms.

Therefore, it is necessary to increase public awareness to anticipate any such phenomenon. The decline of democracy cannot be allowed to continue.

AZYUMARDI AZRA, History professor at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University; member of AIPI.

Last Updated: Jul 31, 2022 @ 7:52 pm
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