May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

A new agenda for democracy

Published: Jul 22, 2007

Is democracy stalled? An in-depth survey suggests hope for the future

Olle Tornquist

The flowering of the reformasi movement in 1998 saw scores of new political parties form, and a ferment of ideas about the prospects and strategies for a new democratic Indonesia. In the years that followed, reformasi lost momentum. Amid much pessimism about the prospects for democracy, a new organisation called DEMOS embarked on a program to help revive the democracy movement. DEMOS has recently completed a survey on the problems and options involved in achieving democratisation based on human rights. Eight hundred experienced democracy activists from 32 provinces took part in the study, which examined a wide range of issues associated with democratisation. The commitment was unique, the approach new, and the result may be the most comprehensive information available on this field in Indonesia.

Elitist democratisation

The origin of this survey lay in discussions that took place as long ago as 1994. Some of us argued that it was not enough for ‘civil society’ to develop vibrant and more independent organisations; it must generate and relate to strong political actors, which called for knowledge of the politics of democratisation. These discussions set in motion a long process of research and discussion. Further development of the existing independent organisations was, by itself, not enough. A first book Aktor Demokrasi (Democratic Actors) was followed by a second called Indonesia’s Post-Soeharto Democracy Movement. The preliminary results from these studies led to a national conference on democracy in 2002. This conference decided to survey democracy activists throughout the country to identify the problems and options for a meaningful human rights-based democracy. The aim was to devise a fresh agenda for democratisation.

The survey asked democracy activists why Indonesia’s successful elections had consolidated the power of the old establishment instead of making space for those who had been in the front line of bringing democracy to the country. It also asked why most of Indonesia’s supposedly democratic institutions were plagued by abuse and corruption. Just as in many other countries in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and elsewhere, Indonesia seemed to exhibit a crisis of elitist democratisation.

The usual culprits people point to are the oligarches and the military, the weak middle and working classes, and an authoritarian culture. But we thought this was not enough. To re-think the model of democracy that Indonesia had adopted after the fall of Suharto, it was also necessary to look at the conflicts that might generate agents of change and the problems among those who had themselves been struggling for democracy. Our own studies indicate that while many democracy groups are alive and kicking, they are unable to influence mainstream politics. Early in 2005 conclusions from the survey and tentative recommendations were presented and discussed in the media, on the DEMOS website and in a series of seminars with key informants, experts and organisations. The results and proposals provide thought-provoking results.

Representing citizens’ interests

In contrast to the many critics of reformasi, most pro-democracy actors do not consider developments since 1998 meaningless, nor do they see democracy as an impossibility. Our respondents agree that there is a long way to go and there are even signs of a crisis. But they also view the civil and political freedoms achieved so far quite favourably (the one exception is freedom from physical violence and the fear of it). It is true that social and economic rights (such as the right to work) and the real tools of democracy (such as the instruments of law and governance) are poor everywhere in Indonesia – and almost non-existent in places like Aceh. But even our most sceptical informants say that it makes sense to defend, use and further develop many of those institutions as well.

Meaningful democracy needs more than just top-down institution-building. For many established experts it is as if once you have well-designed parliaments and anti-corruption bodies, democracy will miraculously work. Our results show democracy activists clearly believe that this approach has reached a dead end. Aside from the positive freedoms that have been achieved, almost all rights and institutions that are supposed to promote democracy are poorly-run or defunct, and there are few signs of improvement since 1999. Many informants even say that the specific institutions that should prevent money politics, corruption, paramilitary groups, hoodlums and organised crime from flourishing, and promote subordination of the executives to the rule of law, have actually deteriorated.

The question is what should be given priority. The conventional position says we need to promote better rule of law, anti-corruption or people’s rights and participation. Our grounded experts are more clear-cut. Their message is that while those sectors need attention, the worst area is representation of people’s own basic interests and ideas of how public life should be organised. In other words, the building of better institutions must be guided and propelled by broad-based representation of citizens’ interests and vision, rather than by more or less enlightened elites. The free and fair elections held since 1998 have mainly been of unrepresentative and unresponsive parties and politicians. Mass-based interest organisations such as unions are scattered and marginalised. This area of civil society has been neglected by democracy supporters. It is vital to reinvigorate popular representation if other sectors of Indonesian public life are to be improved in a democratic way.

A social pact

Indonesia is not like many other new democracies where elites mainly bypass new institutions like parliaments by taking the real decisions in company boardrooms or military headquarters. Even our critical informants ‘admit’ that dominant actors such as district chiefs, military officers, businessmen and even militia leaders relate to the new rules of democracy. On a superficial level democracy has thus become ‘the major game in town’. The real dilemma is rather that the elite bend and abuse the rules of that game by monopolising elections, parliaments, the judiciary and the bureaucracy. As the activists we surveyed concluded, democratisation has stagnated because the elites who were supposed to promote – or at least to be disciplined by – the new institutions, have instead colonised them.

To fight this, we must identify the root causes. The survey showed that Indonesia’s elites draw their power and support not just from private business and not just the state, but from a combination of both. As in the colonial period, powerful businessmen use the local state and politics to get privileges – thus also nourishing ‘bad governance’ – while many bureaucrats and politicians sustain this process to enhance their positions and develop their own businesses. As a result, the monopolisation of democracy can be fought neither by privatisation nor by statism. Neo-liberal Russian-like oligarches or Chinese-like state capitalists would be equally bad. It will take instead an anti-monopolistic social pact; a class compromise between businessmen and professionals – who can advance without protection but need a reliable labour force – and ordinary people, who like to work hard if they get jobs and social security.

Historical lessons ranging from South Africa and Brazil to parts of India and Europe suggest that such pacts must be negotiated and guaranteed by a democratic state. Our respondents suggest that a reinvigorated democracy movement is the only force that has the potential to facilitate an Indonesian anti-monopolistic pact. Most elite groups stand to lose a lot, independent private business and professionals are weak, and labour is both disorganised and poor. Given these unfavourable circumstances, moreover, struggle at the level of ‘raw powers’ must be avoided in favour of the democratic rules of the game.

Coming in from the margins

The remaining question is how this potential of the pro-democrats can be realised. The final conclusion of our informants is self-critical but bold. Pro-democrats remain vital within civil society and as pressure groups. The problem is that they lack a broad social base and are confined to the margins of politics. More than 50 per cent of the activists prioritise efforts at direct democracy through local community organisations, while only two per cent combine this with engagement in constitutional, representative democracy. The space is thus wide open for continued elite monopolisation of basic democratic institutions. To facilitate de-monopolisation and a meaningful democracy, activists must widen the social base of their local civic capacities, transform concrete issues and interests among emerging social movements into governance agendas, federate associated political formations and foster combined forms of direct democracy in community organisations and representative democracy through political institutions. If the democracy movement cannot fight the crisis of representation and thus pave the way for a social pact against political monopolisation, it will become irrelevant.

Olle Tornquist ( is professor of politics and development at the University of Oslo in Norway, and academic co-director of the DEMOS central research team. DEMOS will hold a conference in November 2005 to discuss a new democratic agenda. Details:

Inside Indonesia 84: Oct-Dec 2005

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