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Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 19:51 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 19:51 | SYDNEY

Can people power save Indonesian democracy?

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18 October 2012 13:53

Greta Nabbs-Keller is writing a PhD at Griffith Asia Institute on the impact of democratisation on Indonesia's foreign policy.

The current political climate in Jakarta, marked by a president eager to avoid upsetting powerful constituencies ahead of the 2014 elections and a notoriously corrupt legislature, is encouraging reactionary forces to reassert some of their former influence.

This is not to say that Indonesia will return to authoritarian rule, but it does suggest that democratic gains may be increasingly hollowed out, with implications for Indonesia's domestic and foreign policy.

In this bleak picture there are a few bright spots, however: Indonesia's civil society organisations, the media, and a concerned public.

These groups have been tenacious in defending democratic gains and holding state institutions accountable. They have prevented the Indonesian National Police (Polri) from arresting the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) investigator Novel Baswedan, in an epic and ongoing battle that is making headlines again across Indonesia as well as provoking commentary here in Australia. Polri had become resentful at KPK's investigation of senior officers involved in a traffic simulator procurement scandal, and attempted to detain the principal KPK investigating officer.

The president's subsequent intervention to defend the KPK has largely been ignored by the key protagonists. For its part, Polri intends to pursue its investigation of Baswedan for a crime allegedly committed eight years ago. Meanwhile, it is not yet clear whether Indonesia's legislature (DPR) may continue deliberating amendments to curb the anti-corruption body's powers. 

Human rights activists are disappointed in the Constitutional Court’s approach to an application to review the State Intelligence Law, which was based on concerns about intelligence agencies' powers and ambiguity around the definition of internal security threats. Similarly, security sector reform analysts have equated elements of the draft National Security Law to the resurrection of the Command for the Restoration of Security and Order (Kopkamtib), established in 1965 with sweeping powers to 'cleanse' Indonesia of opposition elements.

In foreign policy terms, the effects of democratic regression seem less apparent, but are nonetheless being felt.

It is getting harder to ensure that democracy and human rights remain at the forefront of Indonesia's foreign policy agenda in ASEAN, according to civil society activists involved in foreign policy formulation.

Moreover, earlier champions of democracy and human rights in Indonesia's foreign policy, such as former Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, no longer hold positions of influence in government.

In fact, Indonesia is facing a credibility problem in the dissonance between its domestic and foreign policies. Illiberal aspects of its democracy are serving to undermine the carefully crafted international image Indonesia has sought to project as a pluralist, democratic and Muslim majority state.

For example, many thought the president's UN proposal for an international protocol against blasphemy bad diplomacy, given Indonesia's own blasphemy laws have been used as an excuse to persecute religious minorities at home.

Even the very 'universality' of human rights is being watered down in government discourse. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa was quoted recently as saying that the 'universality of human rights should not contradict local conditions'.

This comes despite Indonesia's earlier championing of the universality of human rights within ASEAN, and its ratification of a raft of UN human rights conventions.

Whether civil organisations can defend the line against attempts to wind back progress on democracy on human rights remains a compelling question for Indonesia's future. In the meantime, a degree of cynicism about Indonesia's ongoing democratic consolidation is not only healthy, but absolutely necessary for clear-eyed analysis and considered policy making. 

Photo by Flickr user ivanatman.

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