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Indonesian Democracy is Best Understood as Existing in a State of Disorder

01 Sep 2023
By Dr Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir
Indonesia demonstration at parliament - Indonesian anti-corruption civil society organisations rejected the 2014 Regional Elections Bill which changes direct elections so that they become an indirect election. Source: Transparency International /

Indonesian democracy has never been deeply held onto by the country’s politicians. The growth of illiberal policies is more a norm than a symptom of a decaying liberal order. 

For the last few years, many analysts have openly discussed the deterioration of Indonesian democracy, evidenced partly by the increasing restrictions on civil and political rights. For some, this decline is quite surprising given the previous success of Indonesia as a new democracy in passing the turbulent transition period.

However, despite their criticism of current political development, some analysts continue to uphold the view that a broader reversal toward authoritarianism will not take place. One of the prominent arguments attributes this stability to promiscuous power sharing among political elites and the presence of a vibrant civil society as the backbone of democracy.

There are two main problems with this view. Firstly, although such views offered are made comparatively, a collective praise for democratic performance may hide more fundamental problems within Indonesian domestic politics. It should be noted that liberal democratic institutions have never been consolidated in this country. This is because Indonesia is ruled under a state of disorder, by which pervasive corruption, overlapping regulations, and the instrumentalisation of laws for political goals are crucial to the accumulation of power and wealth. It defines the nature of Indonesian politics as illiberal.

Secondly, such optimistic views reflect an inaccuracy in the analysis not only about current political development but also about the potential of civil society. It has overestimated the strength of civil society as a democracy defender, while further deepening illiberalism shows the opposite. More importantly, such analysis creates false hopes among civil society, making them unaware of their own weakness.

Both the optimistic analysts and majority of civil society activists continue to blame the current Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) administration as the cause of democratic decline. Previously, these analysts and activists praised Jokowi as a promising reformist politician that could advance Indonesian democracy.

Democracy and disorder

In a state of disorder, legal confusion, uncertainty, and lawlessness are pervasive. This is because those aspects are instrumental in the accumulation of power and material resources. However, this state of disorder is not an anomaly or a deviation from an ideal conception of order. It is a state that works, resulting from a particular historical development and relationship between the state and capitalism.

Liberal political-legal order and the rule law, such as is common in Australia, are generally found in societies where economic power has relative autonomy from political authority. So long as there is no separation of political power and the economy, a state of disorder will thrive.

In Indonesia, this disorder was nurtured and incubated in the New Order authoritarian era between 1967 and 1998. Democratisation in the post-1998 era did not change the organisation of power through which disorder was reproduced. Dominant economic actors—mostly ethnic Chinese who experienced racial discrimination—continue to establish alliances with corrupt bureaucrats and political leaders to protect their property as well as to secure and expand their businesses.

Importantly, remnants of the authoritarian elites and their networks are the most adaptive and ready to capture the new democratic system. Hence, they have little interest in dismantling democracy and reform institutions, but to repurpose them to further facilitate rent seeking. Such is possible especially when there is no strong and coherent progressive social movement that can transform the organisation of power. As a result, democratisation not only abandons social welfare, but it is also accompanied by illiberalism.

The incorporation of human rights in the constitution and national laws does not necessarily improve rights protection. Cases of past human rights violations also remain untouched. Corruption also continues to be an endemic problem. From their inception, Indonesian anti-graft bodies have become the tools of contending elites to attack their opponents.

Deepening illiberalism

As significant challenges to predominant anti-democratic forces remain lacking, predatory networks not only survive but also continue to consolidate in the interests of the few. This is what has happened during the Jokowi administration (2014-now).

From the first year of his presidency, Jokowi accommodated military figures associated with past human rights violations in his cabinet. This is not simply because Jokowi was surrounded by anti-democratic elites that forced him to abandon his promises of advancing human rights. Rather, Jokowi partnered with corrupt politicians, military figures, bureaucrats and businesses, who then used their influence to repurpose democratic institutions for the interests of their survival.

Jokowi might have gained support from pro-democracy activists organised within various volunteer groups, however, these groups have no real power to further the reform agenda or challenge predatory interests. Rather, they have become a means for civil society elites to establish patron-client relationships for their own benefit.

Over the years, Jokowi’s rule has sought to bolster, not hinder, these networks. Critics are frequently repressed, corruption is facilitated, various legal avenues continue to be hijacked to safeguard elites’ interests, and many laws that sideline human rights are enacted.

Similar illiberal trends have also been registered during the previous administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-2014), including attempts to weaken Indonesia’s anti-graft body (KPK). It was also during the Yudhoyono administration that many analysts hailed Indonesian democracy as consolidated and stable, and safeguarded by a vibrant civil society. This is justified especially by referring to the failure of the weakening of the KPK, though this should not be seen as a result of strong support from civil society, rather more to do with anti-democratic elites that were less consolidated.

Premature Triumphalism  

Indonesian civil society is too weak to pose significant challenges to predatory interests, change the balance of power, and subsequently defend democracy. It is because they are dominated by liberal reformers organised within various non-government organisations (NGO) whose approach tends to focus on advocating incremental institutional changes, which disregards entrenched power networks.

Other potential elements such as those from the left, various labour unions, and lower-class movements are also branded under the NGO umbrella. Some, who may wish to build a coherent political movement, are too small and with poor organisational capacity. But more broadly, a premature triumphalism of Indonesian democracy has allowed many to ignore such features, creating a blindfold to the fact that predatory interests remain unchallenged and could even bring a further deepening of illiberalism.

Dr Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir is an honorary fellow at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne and assistant professor at the Department of Sociology, State University of Jakarta. He received his PhD degree from the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne in December 2019.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.