Eight months into the Labor administration led by Anthony Albanese, Australia has begun to reinvoke, albeit cautiously, the idea of supporting democracy and a rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific. While this gesture indicates the nation’s self-awareness of being a lonely bastion of liberal democracy in an increasingly autocratic region, much of its details have remained up in the air.
In September 2022, Foreign Minister Penny Wong referred a parliamentary inquiry to examine ways to promote democratic institutions and support civil society. Ever since, there has been backing for Australia to take a more significant role in assisting its regional neighbours achieve democratic ideals.
There are different pathways to do so. The Lowy Institute’s Susannah Patton, for instance, explains that Australia’s approach is, and should remain, interest based. Rather than fussing over ideological alignment, the focus should stay on maintaining regional stability by bolstering democratic procedures and institutions. While most countries in the Asia-Pacific might lean towards autocracy, plenty still hold free elections, implement a multiparty system, and uphold checks and balances through legislature. Promoting democracy, above all, means ensuring these mechanisms continue running smoothly. We can call this the institution-focused approach.
Conversely, Kevin Casas-Zamora, secretary general of the sustainable democracy group International IDEA, argues that Australia should devise an explicit foreign policy for promoting democracy – meaning a more proactive approach to improving specific democratic indicators in other countries. Implicitly, this outlook entails fostering democratic norms beyond the locus of state institutions: aiding local anti-corruption efforts, marginalised groups or independent media as actors that will push for democracy on their home turf. We can designate this as the civil society-focused approach.
However, there are caveats in positing state institutions or civil society as distinct spheres of democratisation – and Indonesia, being Australia’s immediate regional neighbour and important trade partner, presents itself as a curious case that defies such dichotomy.
The latest Global State of Democracy Indices from International IDEA suggest that Indonesia is faring rather well compared to its neighbours across the Asia-Pacific. It scores decently on election management and participation, boasts one of the most robust local democracies in all of Asia, and even surpasses Australia on the civil society participation index. On the other hand, the country remains a hot-bed for corruption, even more so than autocracies such as China and Vietnam. In 2022, International IDEA downgraded Indonesia’s status from mid-performing to a weak democracy after significant regressions on civil freedoms, access to justice and parliament efficiency.
The pattern of democratic backsliding in Indonesia does not neatly fit the approaches conveyed by Patton or Casas-Zamora. More specifically, Indonesia’s problem is that its active, burgeoning civil society has nonetheless been unable to counter endemic malpractice or authoritarian inclinations within nominally well-functioning state institutions.
In the past three years, the country has witnessed a surge of contentious politics in the form of mass pro-democracy protests against hot-button issues ranging from the institutional castration of its anti-corruption body, to a draconian update to its national penal code and the controversial Jobs Creation Bill that unravels several social protection mechanisms to attract foreign investment. Despite glaring public discontent, the government has prevailed in passing all three legislations – mostly by waiting out protest momentum – and kept their legitimacy intact.
The solution to Indonesia’s democratic woes does not reside in simply pushing its state institutions to perform more efficiently or supplying its civil society actors with resources. A far more transformative strategy would be to introduce mechanisms that lower the overall cost of democratic practice – allowing reformers or progressive groups to enter the political arena without requiring them to be tangled in corrupt, predatory relations. These innovations could include: putting campaign finances under scrutiny so independent candidates have an equal footing when they run for office; easing requirements for setting up a political party, such as the minimum number of members or party branches in localities; or policies that protect the trade unions, particularly those in rapidly growing sectors such as the digital economy.
While such innovations will prove particularly salient in the case of Indonesia, they also address a global trend of backsliding democracy. One path by which mid or low-performing democratic countries drift into autocracy occurs when their leaders – who rose to power through traditional electoral pathways – consider democratic politics as posing too difficult a challenge for maintaining power, and opt to solidify their position by capturing state institutions, foreclosing opposition, and undermining basic civil liberties. These opportunistic authoritarians tend to face little international reputational or economic costs as they don’t bulldoze democratic procedures overnight.
A post-Cold War global agenda of democratisation envisaged democratic institutions, such as anti-corruption bodies, as a silver bullet. These institutions are meant to bring political stability and economic growth – and with this growth, a new middle class that compose a robust civil society with democratic aspirations. Australia’s inquiry into supporting democracy should take into account how this framework has been debunked in the past decade or so: contentious politics at the level of civil society, however vibrant, have largely proven ineffective in thwarting elite capture of democratic institutions.
In reality, the degree of Australia’s intervention in regional democracy will depend on its available resources, level of influence, and how democratic the target country already is. The last thing Australia wants is to be seen as patronising. Nonetheless, the country does occupy a unique political position in the Asia-Pacific and can become a catalyst for the promotion of democracy among its regional neighbours. An updated vision of what it means to support democracy will certainly help.