The Economist’s Democracy Index for 2020 has confirmed that Indonesia’s democracy is dwindling. The report gave the country its lowest score yet, casting doubt on Indonesia’s prospects for democratic consolidation. Academics and activists have voiced concerns that Indonesia’s democracy will further stagger in the near future, following a global trend of governments limiting political freedoms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fadhilah Fitri Primandari specially for the East Asia Forum.
The Indonesian government’s quick response to the report’s release outlined its ongoing commitment to strengthening democracy. Such claims are not new — democratic consolidation has been an explicit part of the government’s agenda since 2005, manifested in the National Long-Term Development Plan (Rencana Pembangunan Jangka Panjang Nasional or RPJPN) and its derivatives, including the latest National Medium-Term Development Plan (Rencana Pembangunan Jangka Menengah Nasional).
Aligned with the agenda, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Development Planning have specific bodies to plan and monitor the progress of the country’s democratic development. The government also consistently evaluates its own democratic index and sets targets that it aims to meet in the years ahead.
At a glance, Indonesia’s commitment to democratic consolidation seems strong. For example, the government collaborates with the Election Supervisory Body and the National Police to prevent vote-buying and intimidation ahead of elections. A regional vulnerability index has been rolled out to monitor signs of electoral fraud, and government campaigns that encourage voting and monitor the fairness of elections are commonplace.
Unfortunately, the Indonesian government’s approach to democratic practice is too narrow. It takes more than focussing on elections and bureaucratic reform to consolidate a democracy. Sustaining a democracy in the long-term means establishing a system — both formally and informally — that is able to reinforce and defend itself against threats. Democratic habituation needs to go beyond the boundaries of polling booths and parliamentary halls, and must actively involve the domestic public.
The Indonesian public is largely excluded from policymaking processes. For example, the recent formulation of the Omnibus bill on job creation was drafted without significant public consultation, and with the National Police tasked with monitoring controversy and actively dissuading opposition to the bill. Protests following the bill’s ratification were met with repression. Further, the disbandment of the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam) has highlighted concerns regarding free speech, adding to the ongoing record of intimidation against those holding non-conforming views.
Unsurprisingly, such events have impacted people’s willingness to engage with politics outside of elections and to criticise the government — vital features of a strong democracy. In late September 2020, pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia found that 69.6 per cent of respondents agreed that people are becoming more fearful of voicing their opinions.
Modes of political education further reflect the government’s preference for a minimalist form of democracy, despite claims to the contrary. Political education programs are mostly emphasised close to election days and primarily oriented towards voting and running for elections. Less priority is given to ways in which the public can reach out to representatives or engage in policymaking and socialisation of bills.
This is compounded by the government implying that it knows best, and that dissent is mainly due to a lack of information on the part of the public. This is ironic as many government bodies have been found to stand at the middle and lower end of the scale when it comes to measuring openness to sharing information.
To habituate Indonesians to participate in a richer democracy, information must be more accessible to the public and the government must welcome active criticism. The Indonesian government has demonstrated that it is willing to work with civil society organisations that show support for its policy stances. This signals that the government is only interested in seeking validation and using consultation as a guise for legitimate public involvement and support.
For example, business associations were significantly involved during the deliberation of the Omnibus bill, while concerns voiced by labour unions and human rights defenders were largely dismissed — despite government claims that they were involved in the process. The government has also capitalised on brewing polarisation between segments of civil society and further spurred distrust among different camps, framing itself as the legitimate voice of reason.
Formally, the Indonesian government acknowledges the importance of an engaged civil society for the country’s democracy — the RPJPN explicitly articulates its goals of empowering civil society organisations and ensuring the protection of freedom of speech. The question lies in whether the government is willing to extend channels for policy dialogue to those with different political perspectives and drop the ‘support us or you’re against us’ dichotomy.
It’s time for the Indonesian government to start acting on the normative plans it has outlined in official documents and statements to demonstrate its commitment to democratic consolidation, particularly those relating to the wider democratic space outside elections. If it cannot do this, the Indonesian government will only be nurturing a hollow democracy while paying lip service to those hopeful for democratic improvement.
Fadhilah Fitri Primandari is an independent researcher based in Bandung and a senior research assistant for the CoronaNet Research Project.