Indonesian democracy is regressing, but it’s not over yet, experts say

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Indonesia’s 20-year-old democracy joins many other nations in what experts say is democracy’s global degradation, according to panelists at a Tuesday event: “Is Indonesian Democracy in Decline?” Even so, these experts remain optimistic that Indonesia’s democracy will be strengthened in the coming years rather than falling into the authoritarianism that preceded it.

Indonesia “has become a regressive democracy as opposed to continuing on as low-quality democracy” under current president Joko Widodo, according to Asia Research Institute postdoctoral fellow Eve Warburton. 

Although Widodo was reelected to his second five-year term during Indonesia’s 2019 presidential election, which set historic records with voter turnout at 80%, Warburton said that multiple factors — including the country’s blatantly partisan media, political hyperpolarization, alliances between politicians and business moguls and the lack of legal restraint by the state against its opponents — definitively demonstrate regression in Indonesia’s democracy. 

However, Warburton recognizes that the political atmosphere has markedly transformed from the authoritarian state it was three decades ago. 

“The fact we can even have these discussions shows how much Indonesia has improved over the last half-century,” she said. 

Cornell University government professor Tom Pepinsky said that “rather than regressing,” the country “could simply be continuing on as a low-quality democracy.” He added that Indonesia’s democracy was founded in 1998 and succeeded a 32-year authoritarian regime. 

However, Pepinsky acknowledged that some of Widodo’s policies advanced civil liberties for his people. Pepinsky said that his primary issue with the current Indonesian administration rests in its lack of forbearance: restraint from using legal powers of the office. 

“The survival of a democracy rests on forbearance,” he said. “Democracy is sustained when politicians do not use every tool available to grab power.” 

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Jed Ngalande ‘23 is a Staff Writer for Vol. 259 Academic News.