Apr 17, 2024 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Apr 15, 2024

Democracy yes, accountability no?

PDIP 2009 - Indonesia's voters go to the polls on April 9

Voters have done everything they can for democracy. The same cannot be said for elites


Dan Slater

    PDIP 2009 - Indonesia's voters go to the polls on April 9.
    Danu Primanto-flikr

Indonesia is now a decade into what is, in demographic terms, the biggest democratic experiment since India became the world’s largest democracy in 1947. Like India, Indonesia has defied the condescending but common conceit that democracy can only work in the West, or in the wealthiest of countries. Once again, the world has witnessed the capacity of an ethnically diverse and broadly impoverished electorate to seize its democratic opportunity with sociable enthusiasm – turning out in massive numbers; eschewing partisan conflict and violence; and rejecting the most extreme and intolerant electoral contestants. There have been few if any greater popular political triumphs in the past decade than Indonesian democratisation.

Of course, no one can seriously believe that democracy produces all good things. Democracy does not promise to erase all or even most political and economic problems, and it has surely not done so in Indonesia. All that democracy promises is: (1) the opportunity for ordinary citizens to choose the leaders who they believe will address those problems with the most vigour, intelligence, and integrity; (2) the opportunity to replace leaders who fail to address those problems with new leaders who appear likely to do better; and (3) the expectation that those leaders will be prevented from wantonly abusing their powers of office during the long spells between elections. In three words: choice, removal, and constraint.

There have been few if any greater popular triumphs in the past decade than Indonesian democratisation

Or try just one word: democracy is supposed to make leaders accountable. And yet to a remarkable degree, this has not been the case in Indonesia. To be sure, the democratic institutions that can constrain executive power and bring officeholders to account, such as courts of law and anti-corruption commissions, typically take time to develop. Their weakness in Indonesia is partly a function of democracy’s newness. But the institutions that allow citizens to select and remove their leaders are not supposed to develop under democracy; they are supposed to define democracy. Elites’ accountability to voters has not proven elusive because democracy is new, but because elites have actively strived to elude it. Although the introduction of direct presidential elections in 2004 has restored the accountability of elites to voters to some degree, these modest gains are fragile in the extreme, and could easily vanish after the 2009 vote. The popular triumph of democratisation remains in very real danger of being snatched away by the machinations of political elites obsessed with evading accountability and preventing even the possibility of their own removal and replacement.


How have Indonesia’s elected politicians eluded accountability? In the period 1999-2004, they did so by constructing a full-blown party cartel. As in economics, the essence of a cartel in politics is that all major players collude rather than compete. To be more precise, Indonesian party leaders realised they could collude after competing in elections. After Abdurrahman Wahid was elevated to the presidency in 1999, and again after Megawati Sukarnoputri ascended the political pinnacle in 2001, every single significant political party gained a share of executive power, through seats in the cabinet. Everyone was in, and no one was out. Without a viable opposition, Indonesian voters were on the verge of being denied the effective power to replace their elected leaders in the 2004 vote. No meaningful opposition between elections, no meaningful voter choice during elections.

But direct presidential elections changed the game, if not the players. They gave Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) and Jusuf Kalla (JK) the opening to bolt their leading positions in the cartelised cabinet and challenge Megawati for the presidency, even without the endorsement of a major party. SBY’s Partai Demokrat gained over 7% of the parliamentary vote, as did the PKS, the only party of any consequence who Megawati had not included in her ‘kabinet gotong-royong.’ Indonesian voters thus managed to strike a small blow for accountability in the parliamentary elections of 2004, despite Megawati and her allies’ best efforts to make such an outcome impossible. The Indonesian voters then bloodied the cartel’s nose again in the 2004 presidential vote, replacing the aloof and unresponsive Megawati with SBY in a landslide.

Since her resounding defeat at the hands of the SBY-JK ‘duet,’ Megawati has kept her PDI-P out of the cabinet. She has proudly proclaimed that the PDI-P is now an opposition party and, on occasion, behaved accordingly. Fearful of losing a rematch to Megawati in 2009, SBY has governed with a greater sense of urgency and responsiveness than Megawati did during the cartelised period from 1999-2004.


Accountability secured? Far from it. While direct presidential elections disrupted Indonesia’s party cartel, they did not destroy it. As one of the most prominent veterans of Megawati’s cartelised cabinet, SBY was always an unlikely candidate to dismantle it. Instead, he included every party except Golkar, the PDI-P, and PPP in his initial cabinet – including the PKS, which was tempted out of active opposition with three cabinet ministries – and then he went to work. PPP was quickly lured out of its momentary lapse into an oppositional stance with an offer of three cabinet seats. Golkar was sucked back in next, as SBY doled out five cabinet posts after Vice President Kalla toppled Akbar Tandjung as Golkar leader. A subsequent revolt erupted against Megawati within the PDI-P, led by cartel veterans Laksamana Sukardi and Arifin Panigoro. Their sanctimonious claims to be trying to restore democracy to their party rang rather hollow, considering that they clearly wished to bring the PDI-P back into the patronage-rich executive, denying their entire country a democratic opposition in the process. Since Megawati was the only party leader both strong enough to repel such a challenge, and spiteful enough to refuse to join SBY’s new government, the PDI-P has become Indonesia’s only party in opposition.

Yet a party in opposition is not exactly the same thing as an opposition party. Rather than serving as a consistent and substantive critic of the SBY government in the run-up to the 2009 elections, Megawati and her cartel-crafting husband Taufik Kiemas are working feverishly to position themselves atop a refashioned party cartel – anchored in a renewed PDI-P/Golkar alliance – after the elections conclude. Poll data suggest they will probably fail. But the deeper point is that no one can vote for the PDI-P this April with confidence that they are voting for political change of any sort. There is still essentially no way to cast an effective vote against the party cartel.

As in economics, the essence of a cartel in politics is that all major players collude rather than compete

Whether Indonesia will have a viable political opposition after the 2009 election is entirely out of the hands of Indonesian voters. Today’s ‘cartel minus one’ could easily once again become a ‘cartel in full.’ If this indeed occurs – and recent talk of an impending rapprochement between SBY and Megawati threatens to heal the only rift that currently prevents it – Indonesians will continue to enjoy democracy, but not accountability.

Think Thaksin

Even if this scenario is avoided, there is a second threat to accountability that cannot be ignored. Imagine that SBY is reelected in another landslide. Under presidential electoral rules, he would be in a position to stop sharing power with everyone, and begin refusing to share power at all. Think of President Wahid’s bid to escape democratic constraints in 2000-2001, but this time with a president enjoying an enormous popular mandate and far greater support in parliament. Think Thaksin; think Estrada; think Fujimori. SBY’s powerful and enduring ties to his party allies make such an outcome unlikely, if much too easy for comfort in a structural sense. In the longer term, if the cartel is indeed restored in full after the 2009 vote, the big danger is that voters will increasingly come to resent an unresponsive and unaccountable parliament, and ultimately accept a strong-armed, populist leader with no commitment to democratic institutions of constraint as their next president. At the risk of sounding alarmist: think Prabowo.

Of course, Indonesia is by no means condemned to relive either the cartelised sclerosis of the Megawati years or the presidential domineering of the Wahid years. The solution, as I see it, is for the next president to craft the kind of ‘koalisi terbatas,’ or limited coalition, that SBY originally promised back in 2004. Indonesia needs a governing majority, not governing unanimity. But the problem is that voters have little leverage to ensure that they will enjoy the same kind of effective choice in the next democratic elections as they enjoyed in their first, a decade ago. Elites can simply choose such a new coalitional path – unfortunately, it is elites alone who currently have this power to choose.

So to conclude: if forced to fill out a report card on Indonesian democracy after ten years, I would eagerly give Indonesia’s voters an ‘A.’ They have done everything in their power to sustain and strengthen their fledgling democracy. But the same cannot be said for Indonesia’s political elites. I would give them nothing better than a ‘C’ – a ‘C’ for ‘cartel.’     ii

Dan Slater (slater@uchicago.edu) is assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago. His earlier writings on accountability in Indonesia can be found in Indonesia and Social Analysis.

Inside Indonesia 95: Jan-Mar 2009{jcomments on}

Latest Articles

Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

The Jokowi-Luhut alliance


A business alliance forged in 2008 between Joko Widodo and Luhut Pandjaitan formed the basis for a major axis in his presidency

An EV-fix for mining


Nickel’s ‘green development’ boost to resource nationalism

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.