What democracy means to Indonesia

There is too much alternative pressure in Indonesia for a liberal democracy to comfortably flourish, writes Ash Tziolas.

Ash Tziolas is a Post-Graduate Student at the University of Sydney, undertaking a Master of International Relations and Specialising in Country Risk Assessment.

The utility of democratic promotion in the 20th century, both at an international and domestic level, represented the advancement of fundamental freedoms, respect towards human rights and the facilitation of multilateral institutionalism. However, a distinction must be drawn between the relative importance of democracy and the promotion and maintenance of the wider liberal international order.   Democracy has been incessantly promoted in tandem with United States and Australian Indo-Pacific strategy. This fails to account for a wide range of East and South East Asian middle powers whose democracies remain unconsolidated and increasingly unstable.

It is critical to acknowledge that in a region as vast and diverse as the Indo-Pacific, the promotion of liberal democracy must be a minute tool in the projection of a liberal international order. The absence of a functioning and consolidated democracy does not mean that a particular state-actor does not favour multilateral institutionalism and respect for human rights & wider international law. It is time to accept that liberal democracy is not always applicable.

Indonesia’s presence at the 2021 Summit for Democracy, facilitated by the United States, highlights that the country’s domestic leadership is eager to align itself with this aspect of the liberal international order. Indonesian Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, discussed the country’s commitment to democracy through reference to the annual Bali Democracy Forum. She stated that the event “reflects Indonesia’s commitment to promoting democracy and human rights at the regional and global levels”.

US President, Joe Biden, recently stated that given Indonesia’s place as the world’s third largest democracy, the country remains an important state-actor in the promotion of democratic values. However, Indonesia remains restrained in its realistic ability to promote liberal democracy.

A frequently overlooked aspect of democratic promotion is the assumption that everyone understands democracy in the same way. The historical prevalence of the military in Indonesian social and cultural life has encouraged hybridised interpretations of democracy among regular citizens. According to the World Values Survey, nearly 1 in 5 Indonesians believe that an essential characteristic of their democracy is for the army to take over when government acts incompetently.

Proponents of liberal democracy must be willing to recognise that ‘liberal values’ and ‘democratic values’ do not always align, depending on your cultural and social environment. Many bilateral and multilateral dialogues focusing on the topic of democracy make little effort to acknowledge how culture can influence the way people interpret democratic values.

Additionally, the consolidation of Indonesian democracy is hindered by the cultural comfortability and high public support towards authoritarianism.  During the third wave of democratisation, the Indonesian Reformasi was categorised as one of the most successful democratic transitions of the era. After General Soeharto’s resignation in May 1998, Indonesia began decentralising power that had accumulated under authoritarian rule, where significant autonomy was given to regional provinces and constitutional change brought about the first free elections.

Despite this positive step towards democratisation, many deep-rooted issues of the Soeharto era continued to seep into domestic politics, post-Reformasi. These included high levels of corruption and dynastic politics, which negatively influenced the public perceptions of the new democratic regime, providing many citizens with a reason to favour the previous system.

Alongside corruption, the Asian Financial Crisis, which created widespread poverty, the collapse of the Indonesian Rupiah, and many years of restricted access to basic commodities, underpinned the events of the reform. The public’s perception of political stability during the Soeharto Era, in juxtaposition to these events, meant that for many Indonesians, authoritarianism represented structure, order and prosperity.

Decades of state-based propaganda established the cultural comfortability towards authoritarianism, and the political and economic instability of the late 1990s cemented it. Irrespective of whether Indonesian political leadership is eager to align itself with the preferred political system of the liberal order, it will have to contest these domestic attitudes.

Currently in Indonesia, high public support for military dictatorship, theocracy, technocracy and strongman leadership are present. There is too much alternative pressure for a liberal democracy to comfortably flourish. It is clear that Indonesian democracy has not consolidated, and perhaps never will, as is the case with many East and South East Asian democracies. It is unreasonable to place so much emphasis on a Cold War mentality of autocracy versus democracy in the Indo-Pacific, given the diversity that exists in the region.

Indonesia’s political system does not define the substance of its connection to the liberal international order. As a significant middle power, with deep maritime roots, Indonesia’s economic and strategic outlook for the Indo-Pacific is invested in a rules-based approach for maintaining freedom of navigation, a focus on multilateral institutionalism and increasing developmental efforts.

A deepening relationship with the United States and the increased assertiveness of China, closer to Indonesia’s EEZ, should highlight that Indonesia’s commonality with the structures of the liberal international order go far beyond the consolidation of democracy. There is so much more to talk about.