Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Democracy in Indonesia: A cause for celebration

While its neighbours in Southeast Asia have become increasingly autocratic, Indonesia continues to quietly consolidate its democratic institutions.

A voter casting a ballot in Jakarta, 15 February 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Ed Wray)
A voter casting a ballot in Jakarta, 15 February 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Ed Wray)
Published 20 Feb 2017   Follow @maxwalden_

Prior to Indonesia holding 101 local elections across the nation, Islamic leaders and the National Police publicly urged citizens to stay united. National Police Chief General Tito Karnavian asserted that differences 'are common in a democracy'. He said: 'You may have different candidate preferences, but don't let those differences divide us'.

Come election day, they didn't. On 15 February, Indonesians from Aceh to Papua participated in pilkada serentak, or simultaneous elections, voting for regional heads at the municipal, district and provincial level. Having deployed some 150,000 officers to safeguard the election, the National Police reported by the afternoon that the elections had gone smoothly and safely.

Indonesia in the Reformasi era

Since the collapse of Suharto's New Order regime in 1998, world's most populous Muslim nation has undergone the process of Reformasi – evolving from a highly centralised, authoritarian state to the third-largest democracy and one of the most decentralised political systems in the world. While its neighbours in Southeast Asia have become increasingly autocratic, Indonesia continues to quietly consolidate its democratic institutions and run successful elections for numerous levels of government.

In 1999, the Habibie government enacted Law 22 and Law 25, which entailed a radical devolution of governmental and fiscal responsibility from the central government to locally elected representatives at the district (kabupaten) and municipality (kota) level. Provincial governments also hold significant power. Accordingly, the Indonesian central government is left only with a few key areas of policy (justice, foreign policy, defence and religious affairs), making local elections very important.

The election of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) in 2004 was the first major achievement for Indonesian democracy, in what was a peaceful campaign and a fair election. All political parties accepted the result, and a poll conducted in September that year found that 97% of Indonesians believed the conduct of the election to have been 'fair and honest'. Signs of intimidation and vote-buying were minimal.

Foreign observers have noted steady improvements in Indonesia's electoral processes since 1998, despite an increase in vote-buying between the 2009 and 2014 presidential elections. In December 2015, Indonesia successfully held its first pilkada serentak across some 269 regions, and elections at the local and national level continue to be declared free and fair by international observers.

This month many Indonesians went to the polls once again to vote for their local leaders. President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo called a public holiday for the event, intended to allow the more than 40 million people registered to vote across seven provinces, 76 districts and 18 cities to cast their ballots. Voter turnout across the country was more than 65%.

The battle for Jakarta

Controversy around Jakarta's incumbent Tionghua (ethnic Chinese), Christian Governor Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama's alleged blasphemy case heightened religious and racial tensions during 2016. International media has focused on this element of the campaign, which has widely been interpreted as reflecting growing intolerance, religious conservatism and anti-democratic Islamist politics.

Yet the fact that there were three viable candidates in the running (Ahok, former National Education Minister Anies Baswedan, and SBY's son Agus Yudhoyono), each of whom led the opinion polls at some point during the campaign, illustrates the vibrancy of Indonesia's democratic politics.

Three election debates were televised nationwide across a number of channels. Despite the heated and predictable personal attacks, these forums genuinely focused on the respective candidates' visions for Jakarta and their policies in a way not witnessed during the US presidential debates. The fact that polling data changed significantly after these debates suggests Jakartan voters were paying attention to policy, not just personalities.

Agus, who had previously led his competitors in public opinion polls, appeared unprepared and light on policy, and he came to suffer for it. Meanwhile, having trailed his opponents for months, Anies' popularity shot up after performing well in the debates.

Come election day, the General Election Commission (KPU) invited members from election commissions across Southeast Asia as well as from international NGOs promote transparency in electoral processes. Of course, local NGOs and the foreign press were also watching closely, from a well-heeled Jakarta neighbourhood where Ahok cast his vote, to its prisons. Voter turnout was high at 77.1%, significantly surpassing the KPU's target of 70%. The Chairman of the Jakarta KPU, Sumarno, praised the enthusiasm of Jakarta's voters.

Ahok will face Anies (who received 40% of the vote) in a second-round runoff election to be held on 19 April. Meanwhile, Agus Yudhoyono and his running mate Sylviana Murni graciously conceded defeat on the night of the election.

Despite the political storm surrounding his candidacy, Ahok still won the most votes at around 43%, in a city whose voting population is around 85% Muslim. As American journalist Vincent Bevins observed: 'Could you imagine New York or California giving the most votes to a Muslim accused (rightly or wrongly) of insulting Christianity? I can't.'

According to Jakarta Post political commentator Bambang Nurbianto, Jakarta should be considered a barometer of the nation's politics – 'what happens in this year's election will have a bearing on the national political landscape'. If that's the case, then most Indonesians have shown they care more about good governance than they do about the ethnic or religious identity of a particular candidate.

Democracy across the archipelago

In the neighbouring city of Bekasi, populism did not triumph either. Vying for deputy head, controversial rockstar Ahmad Dhani had been a vocal critic of Ahok and joined mass demonstrations in the capital against the governor. He had promised to bring the Red Hot Chili Peppers to town if elected.

It didn't help him. The female incumbent bupati of the working class city, Neneng Hassanah Yasin, won comfortably with 43.29%. Unlike in Jakarta where winner must gain 50% of the popular vote to secure an outright victory, candidates in other provinces only require more than 30%.

Meanwhile, provinces with history of ethnic conflict saw peaceful polls and unconventional candidates succeed. In the city of Singkawang, West Kalimantan, two Tionghua women candidates went head-to-head, having campaigned in the Hakka dialect of Chinese in order to appeal to older voters less fluent in Bahasa Indonesia. Tjhai Chui Mie won with 42.6% of the vote to become the city's first female mayor since it became an autonomous region in 2001.

In Papua and West Papua provinces, officials from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) travelled to Jayapura and Manokwari to observe pilkada serentak. 'The Pacific region and Indonesia share a belief in the principles of good governance and fair and free elections. I'm sure there is much we can learn from the third largest democracy in the world,' said PIF Secretary General Meg Taylor. The case of democracy in Papua is interesting, not least due to ongoing limitations on freedom of speech, association and press.

Across Indonesia, decentralisation has allowed for local interpretations of democracy, which while better accounting for Indonesia's cultural diversity also can pose problems for electoral transparency. For example, after observing gubernatorial elections in West Papua in 2013, the Asian Network for Free Elections reported that the incorporation of traditional noken bags in the electoral process heightens the risk of ballot manipulation, vote-buying and intimidation.

Are elections enough?

After Jokowi's election in 2014, Sarah Repucci from democracy watchdog Freedom House wrote in the Jakarta Post that Indonesia was 'proof that democracy remains vibrant outside of the global north'.

Democracy is, however, more than just elections. Toxic anti-Chinese politics during the Jakarta campaign show that majoritarian discrimination against minorities based on race and religion still do remain fundamental democratic challenges. A raft of other issues, including the suppression of LGBT Indonesians, ongoing allegations of grave human rights abuses in Papua and curtailed media freedom remain a blight on Indonesia's democratic credentials.

'We must be grateful that the simultaneous elections have taken place peacefully and smoothly,' said Jokowi at the presidential palace on Wednesday. 'I appeal to the people to place brotherhood, solidarity, and unity above everything, so that we can immediately focus on development programs that bring prosperity and justice to all the people of Indonesia.'

Having succeeded in conducting fair polls, this is now the challenge for Indonesia. Despite its importance for achieving more representative government, democracy and decentralisation have nonetheless seen a rise in corruption as local authorities take advantage of fiscal independence and inadequate oversight to exploit their power for personal gain.

According to the head of Indonesia's Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem), Titi Anggraeni, 'political parties have failed to produce qualified candidates for the citizens of this country. The party mechanism does not work'. The KPU itself has also raised concerns in the past over the ability of graft and other criminal suspects to run legally in Indonesia's elections.

April's runoff election in Jakarta and the 2019 presidential elections will likely prove even greater tests of Indonesia's 19-year-old democracy. Yet, in demonstrating the nation's institutional ability to conduct 101 simultaneous polls across a vast and diverse country, these elections should ultimately be cause for celebration.

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