Will Indonesian Democracy pass the 2018 quality test?

06 May 2018

Asiaviews- Will Indonesian Democracy pass the 2018 quality test?


Recently columnist Fareed Zakaria gave his take on the decline of democracy around the world – and why the United States isn’t immune from the trend. He might have been thinking of many countries around the world but there are ASEAN countries where democracy is at issue. In Indonesia, it should not be. There is no government persecution of minorities, no serious security challenges. Human rights or lack thereof are less alarming than ever before.


Indonesia has showcased democratic elections ever since President Sukarno fell from power twenty years ago. The crown pieces are the general elections for the legislative and executive branches of government. International election watchers sent teams of observers to the 1999 general elections.Every five years there are elections at the national level, and regional elections have upgraded synchronization up until this year’s 171 elections where people select their governors and regional parliaments, 17 provinces and 39 municipalities and 114 regencies will have a chance  to evaluate and elect their leaders.


Wikipedia describes the 2018 elections as a run-up to the 2019 national elections, due to the fact that the three most populous provinces in the country (West Java, East Java and Central Java) hosting 48 percent of voters in 2014 are to vote. Some observers also described the election as a follow-up to the 2017 elections, particularly the Jakartan election where Gerindra and PKS-backed Anies Baswedan defeated Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (A Hok), commonly seen as president Joko Widodo's ally. Approximately 160 million of the country's 260 million citizens will be eligible to vote.


Quantity is not a problem. Quality is.


In the fourth quarter if 2017 gubernatorial elections were held in Jakarta that produced controversial results. A popular and high-achievement governor lost the elections to a pair with no experience in local government. The elections produced a shock result. The successful incumbent Governor A Hok came to the elections with a 74% approval rating based on his unprecedented record of achievements and clean government. But the hard-fought elections were marred by a controversial court case of religious blasphemy which created enough doubt among subscribers to the religious issue to sway the votes and eventually sent A Hok to 2-year jail sentence. It is now under review because of improprieties but the damage has been done. Identity politics has raised its powerful head, rendering rational decision making ineffective. As we approach the 2018 elections, the big question is whether Indonesian democracy will survive her foray into identity politics. For all its faults, Suharto’s New Order has succeeded keeping identity politics hidden, albeit through measure which at times seemed grossly unjust.

The columnist Fareed Zakaria recently addressed the problem of quality of democracy. “More than 20 years ago, I warned that the distinctive problem facing the world was ‘illiberal democracy’ -- elected governments that systematically abused their power and restricted freedoms and liberties. I subsequently worried that America could head down this path,” Fareed says. While the situation in America is well known around the world, the Indonesian situation is less obvous.

If the centuries old American democratic tradition still faces challenges from changing political culture, what can we expect from Indonesia’s newest democratic experiment, now less than 20 years old?


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