Indonesia’s Long Journey Towards Democracy

Indonesia’s democracy development is good news. As the most populous Muslim nation where democracy and market economy rule, it has started to play a more active role in international politics. Recent achievements and challenges of Indonesia show how it should aim higher.

Ten years ago, Indonesia was near collapse. The Asian financial crisis hit the nation while at the same time it had to face political reformation after the authoritarian Suharto government. Ethno-religious sentiments and conflicts were widespread and riots were part of daily life. 2 However, things do move. A recent report on Indonesia showed that despite of many failures, Indonesia has been able to achieve many things with political and economic stability under the popular re-elected president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. 3 Various bombings in Indonesia, including the latest 2009 Jakarta bombing in the aftermath of the relatively peaceful election, do not undermine Indonesia’s performance, especially when Indonesian National Police succeeded in combating terrorism. 4 Economic sectors after global financial crisis also record impressive development. Indonesia is one of few countries in Asia that has positive economic growth even when Asian economies experienced negative growth. 5 These achievements have lifted the face of Indonesia’s diplomacy in international fora. Besides trying to take the lead in ASEAN, Indonesia also exhibits its ability in tackling climate change and global warming issues. 6 Indonesia has faced and is facing serious issues both socially and economically, but they have so far not prevented Indonesia’s journey to democracy.

What Indonesia has achieved in the last ten years

What makes Indonesia’s reform unique is the fact that Indonesia implemented both political and economic reform at the same time. While many similar cases in many countries seem to be failed, Indonesia has managed its commitment to reform with quite successful results. The most prominent case is the re-introduction of free and fair electoral politics. Since after 1998, Indonesia has conducted three elections: first multiparty election in 1999, presidential and parliamentary elections in 2004, where voters had opportunities to directly vote for the MPs for the first time and the last 2009 election, which was relatively peaceful and successful. 7 Indonesian presidential elections in 2009 also showed the peaceful and fascinating race among the three presidential candidates, the first candidate is the incumbent president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with his running mate, Indonesia’s central bank governor, Boediono, dubbed as SBY-Boediono, which supported by pro-growth centre-right coalition of SBY’s Democrat Party and several leading Islamic parties. The second candidate is the former president Megawati Sukarnoputri and her partner, a former high-ranking military general, Prabowo, referred colloquially as Mega-Pro. They have the support of the centre-left Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), the populist Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) and some other small parties. The last candidate is the incumbent vice president Jusuf Kalla with former general Wiranto as the candidate from Golkar Party and People’s Conscience Party (Hanura), using the nickname JK-Win.

The success of elections is just a glimpse of the advancement of civil and political rights in Indonesia. In the field of constitutional law, Indonesia has amended its constitution, as mandated in the agenda of political reformation, in order to fit into the spirit of democracy and human rights. 8 Freedom of speech, information and the press is the most striking example of this transformation. The numbers of newspapers, magazines, radio stations and other new media has been increasing since the fall of Suharto, and now people can talk and express their opinion freely in public spaces. 9 Another story is the rapid development and expansion of civil society. 10 The role of civil society and NGOs has been influential since the New Order era in democratizing Indonesia. 11 Nowadays, various NGOs with different focuses, ranging from faith-based social organizations to right-based pressure groups, have flourished and contributed to the advancement of democratization process in Indonesia.

Freer political and economic activities also transformed the social life of Indonesian society. The question of Chinese Indonesians and other minorities was one of the main concerns for the betterment of democracy and minority groups in multicultural Indonesia. Thus, anti-discrimination legislation was introduced in the line of this spirit. 12 Another valuable improvement is despite various Islamist sentiments from some hard-line Islamic groups, majority rules. A study conducted by Saiful Mujani, a noted political scientist in Indonesia shows that political reformation and democratization has increased as much as the level of religiosity of Indonesian Muslims.13 Problems of ethno-religious conflicts and separatist movements in some regions have mostly been solved. Peace agreements with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) included special autonomy and local political parties in Aceh province were some of the political breakthroughs in settling conflicts in Indonesia. 14

What Indonesia should work on in the near future?

Despite of its tremendous accomplishments, a fully-functioning democracy in Indonesia is still not there yet. In the case of the latest election for example, though it was largely free, fair and peaceful, the tension among the presidential candidates was inevitable. 15 Alleged frauds and manipulations, unhealthy competition and empty campaign are only some issues that have to be solved for the next election.

The old story of collusion, corruption and nepotism (KKN in Indonesian language) is also still popular. 16 The case of Bank Century is an example how state supervision is still weak in watching financial and banking activities. 17Bank Century, a private bank in Indonesia, is accused of misusing its customers’ money. One of its owners got arrested by the police and sentenced to four years in prison. 18 What makes the whole issue became more complicated is the public perception that the root of all problems is the weak control from the government, especially the central bank. Hence, the government policy to bailout the bank was politically and legally problematic. This situation is worsened by the case of Azahari Azhar, the inactive chairman of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), who has been arrested on suspicion of murder of Nasrudin Zulkarnaen, a prominent businessman. 19 This situation has become more complicated by Azhar’s testimony in which he mentioned that some KPK’s leaders also received bribes in the investigation of corruption in an integrated radio communications system project. 20 The testimony and several other cases finally led into the investigation of KPK’s leaders by the national police. 21 This is a huge irony because in the middle of building a solid foundation for the rule of law, clean government and meritocracy, many problems seem to thwart this effort.

Other two tasks of Indonesia are to tackle natural calamities and democratize the economy. Indonesia’s geographical area, which is archipelagic and located in the meeting point of two major tectonic plates, is the reason why Indonesians should learn to live with disasters.22 The latest earthquakes in major islands such as Java and Sumatera is the momentum for the government to prove its capacity in handling non-traditional security issues. 23 The story of post-crisis Indonesian economic development, although it performs quite well, should not neglect the fact that basic social service and provision such as healthcare, housing and education is inadequate and the widening gap between the poor and the rich has to be reduced. 24 Good investment climates, fair regulations and less corruption is some key points in enhancing the economy

The rise of growing religious fundamentalism and violence is also a big hurdle for the healthy development of democracy in Indonesia. Various Islamic fundamentalist groups, such as the international Hizbut Tahrir, the vigilante Islamic Defender Front (FPI) and Majelis Mujahiddin Indonesia (MMI), which is used to be backed by Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, a prominent conservative Islamic cleric, are getting more popular. 25 Persecution and violence against minority in the name of religion and blasphemy are becoming trend. Ahmadiyya, an unorthodox Islamic group who has coexisted in Indonesia with other elements of Indonesia had to face numerous persecutions and violent attacks because its teachings are considered blasphemous and heretic. 26 This situation has led to a crisis when the tension between Islamic fundamentalist and conservative groups and the liberal and pluralist camp reached its peak in the so-called Monas (National Monument) Incident on July 1, 2008. 27The tragic fact is that the peaceful rally to campaign and reaffirm the importance of pluralism and tolerance, which was held on the same day of the birthday of Pancasila-Indonesia’s national principles in nation building, was contaminated by violent actions. There is an important fact showed in the study of the famous Islamic scholar and activist, Luthfi Assyaukanie, which mentioned that there is a strong correlation between violent actions and fatwas (religious opinion by Muslim jurists) from religious clerics. 28 In his thesis, he found that the widespread violent actions find their justifications from these fatwas. The rise of religious bylaws imposed in several regions in Indonesia also undermines the protection of civil and political rights. 29 There have been some complaints because these sharia-based bylaws are considered to be discriminative, especially for women such as the introduction of rajam or adultery stoning in accordance to the strict sharia interpretation in Aceh province. 30When in this kind of situation the government is expected to adhere to the principle of rule of law and takes a clear stance, it seems that instead of imposing such policy the state prefer to ‘play safe’.

Indonesia’s Democracy: Present and Future Trajectory

Indonesia is not a perfect democracy quite yet. The latest election result, which brought victory to the incumbent President Yudhoyono, should be taken as a golden opportunity to strengthen Indonesia’s democracy. 31Indonesia has to learned from the past and reaffirm its national commitment. This effort requires participation and willingness from every elements of Indonesia as a nation. Threats to civil rights, corruption, natural disasters, expanding income disparity and religious fundamentalism are only some of the challenges of contemporary Indonesia.

In the field of international politics, Indonesia should concentrate not only in the regional arena of ASEAN, but also beyond that, something which is called “Post-ASEAN” Foreign Policy by the leading international relations scholar of Indonesia, Rizal Sukma. 32 Its membership in the G-20 means that Indonesia should have a say and contribute more in international affairs. 33 Indonesia’s soft power is expanding now, and through various channels such as cultural exchanges, diplomacy and economic activities, it has to work on its international image. 34 Indonesia’s relationship with other countries is also relatively friendly. Though it often competes and has conflicts with its two nearest neighbors, Singapore and Malaysia, generally speaking it maintains good relationship with many countries. The visit of US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is a proof of how the Western world is now seeing Indonesia as a strategic partner and connecting bridge between the West and the rest of the world, particularly Asia and Middle East. 35

Indonesia’s success in Southeast Asia as the only working democracy in the region is also good news. 36 As a nation with strategic interests and role in world affairs, it deserves a better image. The answer for this problem is very simple: the combination of liberal democracy, market economy and moderate Islam as the three key principles in building a democratic Indonesia. These three points are related to one another. In order to defend and preserve Indonesian multiculturalism, democracy is needed as an instrument to guarantee civil rights of its citizens. Nevertheless, the protection of civil and political rights will be impossible without the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights. Thus, market economy with social protection is needed in order to promote competitiveness and increase growth and prosperity of the nation. The last but not the least is the use of spiritual and cultural values as the moral basis for the system. A moderate and tolerant interpretation of Islam has long become the mainstream of Indonesia’s religious life, which is also the core element for social capital and democratic politics in Indonesia. Despite all the challenges that Indonesia faces, as long as it follows these principles, the Indonesian future will remain bright.

Iqra Anugrah is a third year student in College of Asia Pacific Studies, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, majoring in political science and international relations. He is a member of the Advisory Board for Strategic Studies Committee for Indonesian Students’ Association in Japan (PPI Jepang). The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the PPI Jepang.

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  2. Ibid.  
  3. Ibid.  
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