Apr 16, 2024 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Apr 15, 2024

How far to meaningful democracy? - 2

How far to meaningful democracy? - 2

Olle Törnquist

   Prosperous Justice Party (PKS)
   Timur Angin

The generally accepted meaning of democracy is popular control of public affairs on the basis of political equality. How far has Indonesia moved towards this ideal? And how much further will it go? Put differently: how much of the old Suharto-era oligarchy remains in place, still governing, but doing so via formally democratic elections?

There are two predominant and rather extreme kinds of answers to these questions. The first comes from the ‘designers’. Beginning in the global ‘third wave’ of democracy, from the late 1970s onwards, some concerned scholars and practitioners placed their faith in the design of a limited number of institutions. They are the institutions dealing with civil and political liberties, the rule of law, free and fair elections, and ‘good governance’. Get the institutions right, some people argued, and democracy will flourish.

In the view of the ‘designers’ – many of whom are found in international agencies for democracy building such as the National Democratic Institute and International IDEA – today’s Indonesian institutions are doing alright. They acknowledge that the system poorly represents the real needs of ordinary people, but they believe that this problem too can be improved through better institutional design. The measures they propose include more direct elections of government executives, and ‘simplifying’ the political party system. The latter step would result in a few major parties that, although still elitist, would at least be able to develop policies, ‘pick up’ demands from society, recruit people for government jobs and supervise the executive. The designers think that popular representation from below is unrealistic. In their view, ‘deepening democracy’ is instead limited to direct participation by ‘responsible citizens’ in civil society, unfortunately excluding ‘the masses’.

The second answer comes from ‘structuralists’ on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Much more pessimistic than the designers, they say that the structural conditions do not permit decent democracy. As a result, the oligarchs have retained their power, and ordinary people their poverty. According to some structuralists, freedoms and elections have generated worse identity politics, conflicts and corruption, and less economic growth. Thus, major parts of the left focus on fighting global neo-liberalism (saying it blocks real democracy). On the right, there is a new emerging international thesis: that enlightened elites should ‘sequence democracy’ by first building solid institutions, ‘good governance’, growth alliances and citizen organisations, before entrusting the masses with full freedoms. The latter position is gaining ground, for instance in many ministries for foreign affairs, conservative think tanks and development bodies such as the World Bank.


Both these arguments are theoretically and politically dubious. The first assumes that once the elites have agreed to the establishment of a few democratic institutions, democracy has been achieved. This is of course as naïve as stating that basic capitalist or socialist institutions always generate prosperity. Yet, most designers have at least held on to their belief in democracy. That is rarely the case with the structuralists. They insist that democracy is meaningful only if certain prerequisites have already been met: for the left, this usually means greater social and economic equality, workers or the poor having strong bargaining power, and the like; for the right, it means strong institutions, good governance, associations of ‘responsible’ citizens and economic growth. As a result, the structuralists by definition exclude the possibility of creating such conditions through improved democracy. Instead, they become pessimistic about the promise of democracy, or even argue that it should be limited or postponed.

In between the two extremes – one engineering elite institutions, the other waiting for massive social change –democracy can be understood as a process, with many factors and actors involved. A framework for such an analysis has been developed and applied in two national surveys of Indonesia’s democracy, the first in 2003-04, the second in 2007. Demos, an organisation for research-based democracy promotion in co-operation with Oslo and Gadjah Mada Universities, twice asked some 900 senior campaigners-cum-experts on democratisation in all provinces about the extent to which the actors and existing means of democracy in Indonesia really supported the universally accepted aims of democracy. The combined results from both surveys, which will be published soon, make it clear that the extreme institutionalist and structuralist arguments are not just theoretically but also empirically mistaken.

By international standards among new democracies, Indonesia is doing reasonably well.

A first conclusion from these surveys is that while surprisingly many civil and political rights are being upheld, these advances have somewhat deteriorated since 2003-04. Informants say that the freedoms of religion and culture, and organisation and speech, are once again at risk. A second conclusion is that since 2003-04 there has been a general improvement in top-down efforts by government institutions to improve the miserable performance of the rule of law, particularly the control of corruption. Third, the disintegration of the centralistic New Order has not led to balkanisation, characterised by separatism and ethnic and religious cleansing. What has developed instead is a unitary political (rather than ethno-nationalist) community with extensive space for local politics. It is true that this space has often been occupied by powerful groups. But in Aceh, where foreign donors have contained the military and big business and where separatists have been able to substitute political participation for armed struggle, decentralisation also paved the way for peace and potentially fruitful democracy.

At the same time, politics in general continue to be monopolised by the elite. But the elite groups are more broadly-based, more localised and less militarised than under Suharto. Remarkably, most of them have adjusted to the new, supposedly democratic, institutions. This is not to say there are no abuses, but decentralisation and elections have enabled more diverse sections of Indonesia’s elite to mobilise popular support. Of course, elites often mobilise such support by making use of their clientelistic networks, their privileged control of public resources and their alliances with business and communal leaders. Yet, the interest of such elite groups in elections is both a crucial basis of the actually existing democracy and its major drawback. Without elite support, Indonesian democracy would not survive; with elite support, it becomes the domain of ‘rotten politicians’ who prosper and entrench themselves through corruption.

In all these respects, Indonesia may thus begin to resemble India, the most stable democracy in the global South. One big difference, however, is that Indonesia’s monopolistic party and election system is not inclusive of major interests among the people at large and also erects high barriers to participation by independent players, and thus still stops civic and popular organisations from getting into organised politics. In this respect Indonesia still seriously lags behind. Moreover, these groups remain hampered by their own fragmentation and weak mass organisation. It is true that there are exciting local attempts to move ahead. In Batang, in north central Java, for instance, local peasants’ organisations have rallied behind broader agendas and won a number of village elections. They now wish to scale up to the regional level. But so far the only major opening has been in Aceh, thanks to the unique possibility of building parties from below and of launching independent candidates after the peace treaty.

In short, although a number of freedoms have been granted to the populace, democratic institutions and people’s capacities remain weak. Yet, much of the required infrastructure is now in place. And in spite of their weaknesses and biases, Indonesia’s institutions are solid enough to accommodate both powerful and alternative actors. Theoretically, this is the bottom line. It is the reason why Indonesia may be called an emerging democracy.

In fact, by international standards among new democracies, Indonesia is doing reasonably well, especially given the traumatic history of the elimination of the popular movements in 1965-66, and the more than thirty years of militarised capitalism that followed. The advances which have been made testify to what is possible even under harsh conditions.


So what would it take to make the most of this democratic potential? The major problem is that the political system of representation is monopolised by elites. This monopolisation is in terms of what people, what issues and what interests are included in the system – and excluded from it. The ever-resourceful elites prevent ordinary people and their small parties from entering politics. Moreover, hardly anywhere in Indonesia can we see substantive representation of crucial interests and ideas of the liberal middle classes, workers, peasants, the urban poor, women, or human rights and environmental activists. Yet, taken together, these groups constitute a clear majority of the population.

Defunct representation nourishes a general lack of trust in democracy.

Their lack of representation nourishes a general lack of trust in democracy. Most worryingly, upper and middle class groups who do not manage to win elections may well use this discontent with elite democracy to gain wide support for alternatives to democracy and to promote the ‘politics of order.’ Supporters of middle class coups typically say that they aim to prevent disruptive populist rule and to build stronger preconditions for democracy; their views find an echo in some of the international support today for proper ‘sequencing’ of democracy. Indonesia has been down this path once before, in the 1960s, and it gave rise to Suharto’s New Order regime; a similar dynamic has more recently been at work in Thailand.

It is imperative, therefore, that civic and popular organisations are able to scale up their ideas and alliances. By connecting communities and workplaces, they can challenge elite control over politics. Case studies conducted by Demos suggest, however, that the scaling up into organised politics is also hampered by civic groups and political activists themselves. Top-down shortcuts through socialist or other ideologies, or through charismatic figures like Megawati, have proven unsuccessful. But so too have grassroots attempts to link specific issues such as human rights or environmental destruction with the concerns of marginalised communities. Basic popular and civic groups must co-ordinate instead on an intermediate political level in order to define joint platforms and support and control genuine politicians.

This calls for leadership and commitment to the building of democracy through popular mandates and accountability both within and between organisations and in relation to elections. Loose networking and polycentric action – the methods favoured by most Indonesia’s NGOs and pro-democracy activists – are not enough. But democracy activists are unlikely to become involved in democratic representation and electoral politics so long as it is easier for them to lobby and network. Organising constituencies and winning majorities in elections takes hard work. However, it is not impossible.

The Acehnese have proven that progress is possible - if the party system is de-monopolised to allow for local parties and independent candidates, and if civic and political organisations are willing and sufficiently well-organised to win votes and thus take advantage of the democratic openings.     ii

Olle Törnquist (olle.tornquist@stv.uio.no ) is professor of political science and development research at the University of Oslo, and academic co-director of Demos (The Indonesian Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies). Several Demos studies can be downloaded from www.demosindonesia.org .

Inside Indonesia 92: Apr-Jun 2008

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