The Quality of Indonesia’s Democracy Keeps Declining
Edward Aspinall., Political Researcher, Australian National University:
The wave of student protests last September spurred adrenaline rush in Edward Aspinall. The Australian ‘Indonesianist’ who started his career in the 90s researching the Indonesian student movement did not see such a massive movement coming just months after the general elections.
Aspinall, 51, said there were common forces that drove the student movement in Indonesia throughout the history: freedom of expression and corruption eradication. The lecturer with the Australian National University, Canberra, said that there were times where these aspirations were channeled through leaders and the people’s representatives.
However, identity politics that has taken root since the 2014 presidential elections and the ongoing practice of money politics by legislative candidates have clogged up the channel. The government and the House of Representatives (DPR) even passed the revised anti-corruption law that he deemed would undermine the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and also revised the Criminal Code (KUHP) and several other laws. “There is a lack of synchrony between what is considered important by the public and what really happens in the formal political arena,” Aspinall told Tempo’s Aisha Shaidra via an overseas telephone call on Friday, October 11.
The discord between the political elites and the public was manifested in, among others, a public dissension between Arteria Dahlan, a DPR member from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), and Emil Salim, an economics professor from the University of Indonesia. Arteria flew into a temper when Emil Salim voiced his opinion based on a book about legislative members and money politics titled Democracy for Sale by Aspinall and his Dutch co-author, Ward Berenschot.
From his newest research, Aspinall found that the decline in the quality of democracy is not happening in Indonesia only. The same trend is taking place in a number of countries that underwent the third wave of democratization, that is, a transition to democratic from monarchy or dictatorship in the 70s. “In the past it was military groups that subverted democracy but now sabotage comes precisely from democratically-elected leaders, like in Hungary, Poland and the Philippines,” said Aspinall, who last week was named the world’s top researcher in Asian Studies by the Research magazine.
What phenomenon did you observe in the 2019 student demonstration?
The student demonstrations and the uproar demanding the repeal of the anti-corruption law as well as the delayed endorsement of the revised KUHP and other revised laws are odd.
The wave of the public demonstrations, which in this case is represented by students, broke out just a few months after the general elections. This is ironic. The legitimacy of the people should be strong after the elections. The problems relating to the interests of the people that can potentially create this sort of unrest should have been discussed through the electoral channel. But they were never touched upon. That’s what happened. There seems to be a lack of synchrony between what is considered important by some of the people and what is actually happening in the formal arena of the political representation in Indonesia. Students want the eradication of corruption and freedom of expression.
The government and DPR did not accommodate them?
The student movement was the subject when I first conducted my research in Indonesia in the 90s. It was a pioneer opposition movement against the New Order regime. That time, the government provided a very limited channel for people to express their aspirations. So, it made sense that since 1970s (the January 15, 1974 incident) students have become the most vocal and confrontational opposition against the Indonesian government. If the democratic consolidation goes well, the student movement will not be necessary. The reemergence of massive student protests after 20 years of reformasi shows that there are problems in the representation and reform systems in Indonesia.
What is the cause?
On the one hand, there was a widespread use of identity politics throughout the presidential election as seen in the Islamist coalition behind Prabowo Subianto and the pluralist coalition behind President Joko Widodo. Perhaps it is too simplistic to call it Islamist versus pluralist but more or less that is the case. With identity politics becoming a main factor, other issues such as cleaning up corruption, political institutions, etc. received less attention. On the other hand, there is patronage politics in the legislative elections.
What does it look like in a concrete form?
The term often used in Indonesia is money politics. In political science, this term refers to a practice of giving out aid or material to influence political choices. The most vulgar form in Indonesia is a ‘dawn attack’ where legislative candidates distribute money early in the morning of the election day. Other forms are disguised under building houses of worship or infrastructure around the election time. Logically, money politics provide a fertile ground for corruption. When identity and patronage politics dominate, there is no more room left for other issues demanded by the students, that is, corruption eradication and freedom of expression.
Is the magnitude of the student demonstrations an indicator of the dwindling public confidence in the government?
The problem lies in the representation system. When identity and patronage politics became deeply ingrained, Indonesia’s democratic system became unresponsive to certain issues. For example, when people in a given village want something, they can lobby with the DPR or the Regional Legislative Council (DPRD) candidates during the election period. However, there is no place to accommodate the demand for corruption eradication, a classic demand since the reformasi era. That is what the students voiced in the recent protests. In a good democratic system, huge demonstrations are rare because public aspirations are represented via the legislative institution.
So, could mass demonstrations be interpreted as something positive or negative?
The reemergence of the student movement could be a sign of hope, a sign that a reform process could be revived. Indonesia can improve the quality of democracy. The demonstrations occurred so suddenly, beyond anyone’s guess. I, who have long researched the history of Indonesia’s student movement, did not expect the movement to return so quickly. This is the force that must be calculated in Indonesia’s political arena so as to be free from the suffocating trap of polarization.
The student movement and the public’s participation on the social media were also monstrous. How do you see the government’s stance?
We cannot deny that the social media helped spread aspirations or calls to move rapidly. Its influence is everywhere across the globe. In Indonesia, the government has been generally repressive against social media reactions by taking legal actions against those who criticized it. That is the sign of Indonesia’s increasingly declining democracy.
Do you think that the 2019 student movement can be likened to the 1998 movement?
I see similarities, both in terms of demand and the movement pattern. There is a continuum. Some students even said that they wanted to steer the reform process to the right path. This is very similar to the previous movement. The movement in the 70s called on the New Order to return to its original identity and to rid itself of corruption. There is a very strong tradition of mobilizing the masses.
Which issue is more dominant, corruption eradication or freedom of expression?
It was the KPK law—not the revised KUHP—that triggered the recent movement. However, freedom to express was also a strong factor. The demand for freedom of expression has always been there in the past 50 years. That is part of Indonesia’s ‘street parliament’ tradition.
What type of freedom was the focus of the students?
One of their grievances was the revised KUHP. If we relate it to the spirit of the reformasi era movement, there are several articles in the revised law that are alleged to revive the spirit of the New Order. One of them is the article on slander against the president. That is a very glaring example. The article has been often used to jail dissidents since the 90s. We as observers are not surprised to see the student rejecting the article. Resisting or criticizing the repressive government’s policies has been one of the essences of Indonesia’s student movement.
(In the KUHP bill, defaming the president or vice president is stipulated in the article 218 and 219 regarding assault on honor or self-esteem and dignity of the president and vice-president. The article 220 also further stipulates that the act becomes a crime only when the president or the vice president files a complaint.)
Edward Aspinall (third from left) at the Money Politics in the 2019 General Elections Seminar, in Jakarta, last April./ Antara/Muhammad Zulfikar
The government and DPR refuted the assertion that the revised KPK law undermines anti-corruption efforts. What is your opinion?
I think everyone knows that the main purpose of the revision is to subvert the KPK. KPK is the only reformasi product that is highly effective and, generally or specifically, control corrupt activities. If politicians think money politics is almost unavoidable, then they will clearly see the KPK as a threat. You don’t have to be a political expert to see that.
Do you think the KPK needs to be governed in the new law?
Broadly speaking, we see that the KPK has been extremely effective in cracking down on (corrupt) officials. When it was formed in 2002, many cynically dismissed it as just another paper tiger. It sounded intimidating but it was a tamed tiger. But the reality proved otherwise. From the first sting operation on Aceh governor Abdullah Puteh in 2004, the list of public officials—from legislators to ministers—that KPK investigated and jailed has become so long. It only makes sense for students and public to have suspicions that there are attempts to create a legal basis to weaken the institution. I haven’t read the analysis that served as the foundation for changes within the agency.
President Joko Widodo has delayed the passing of the revised KUHP and several other controversial bills. Does the delay sufficiently indicate his protective stance towards democracy?
I see it as an appropriate response to the protestors’ demand. But I have doubts about the passed KPK law that sparked the massive protests. Attempts to weaken the KPK since the era of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have always drawn massive reactions from the public. It seems Joko Widodo is in a bit of dilemma at this time. On the one side, several factions, particularly the PDI-P, disapproves if he issues the presidential regulation in lieu of the law to repeal the KPK law. On the other side, if he does not take action, the public will label him as the weak president who does not listen to the people’s aspirations.
Does it mean President Jokowi needs to take a decision on the KPK law?
Since the draft KUHP has not been passed, it is relatively easier to take action on it. As for the the public, they have great concerns for the KPK.
Do you agree with the view that several articles in the KUHP bill can restrict civil liberties?
That point always come up in every wave of student protests since the New Order era. We know that some government critics were arrested. That indicates the decline in the quality of democracy in spite of the strong electoral democracy. In this regard, Indonesia is more and more similar to illiberal democracy that is currently taking place in many countries, where, in spite of democratic elections, the democracy is not liberal. In other words, it does not uphold the principle of individual freedom.
There are also some who say that the government is leaning towards authoritarianism...
This is interesting. Joko Widodo administration is not undergoing a transformation towards an authoritarian regime. In some ways, Indonesia’s democratic system is quite good especially when you look at it from the electoral democracy aspect, as evident in the presidential election when the government’s target of 60 percent votes was not met although regional heads and civil employees had been steered to support the incumbent. This should be considered one of the global success stories of the third wave of democratization. What happened was illiberal democracy.
Does it mean Indonesia’s democracy has regressed?
Yes. A lot of progresses were made at the beginning of the reformasi era. A lot of very fundamental political changes took place until 2004 or 2005. However, during Yudhoyono’s second term, Indonesia’s democracy became stagnant, then began to slide in Joko Widodo’s era. But we cannot call it a drastic decline. The erosion of the quality can be seen from restrictions on freedom to express.
What drove the restrictions?
Many things. One of them is polarization during the presidential elections. Ahok’s case (former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was implicated in the religious slander case in the aftermath of the mass protests staged in the name of Islam in December, 2016) created a heated political climate that tolerated actions that would reduce the quality of democracy.
The polarization strengthened during the Jokowi era?
Correct. Polarization is really felt in his era. In Yudhoyono’s time, the rainbow coalition was still in place, where Islamic groups such as Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) was still represented in the government. Now, there is polarization between Islamic and pluralist groups. That’s just one factor. Another factor is money politics. Since the open electoral system was introduced in the 2009 legislative elections, this phenomenon became increasingly influential. Money politics is the source of corruption. There is a relation like Professor Emil Salim said in a Mata Najwa show some time ago.
Did you watch the debate between Arteria Dahlan and Emil Salim?
Yes, but not the entire show.
Emil Salim cited your book Democracy for Sale…
Yes. I’m grateful if indeed it made contribution in the discussion.
What is your next research after the book is wrapped up this year?
The decline in the democratic quality did not just happen in Indonesia. Many countries that underwent the third wave of democratization also experience it. It became a staple theme for political observers lately. I plan to compare the declines in South East Asian countries.
From your initial premise, what is the cause?
Democracy used to be crushed by military forces via coup d’état. But it is a rare phenomenon nowadays except in Thailand. What happens todays is that democracy is subverted precisely by democratically elected leaders like what happened in Hungary and Poland, and also the Philippines. Is the root in political communication? Or in the social media with its extremely powerful impact on the polarization process? Or in economic equality? This is an interesting global phenomenon for research. Because even countries where democracy is considered to be functioning well like the US is also experiencing it.
Edward Aspinall Date of birth: June 17, 1968 | Education: PhD in Political Science Research, School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University (2000); Master in Indonesian and Malaysian Studies, Sydney University (1991); Bachelor’s degree, Adelaide University, Australia (1989) | Career, among others: Professor, Australian National University; Senior Fellow at Department of Political and Social Change, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, ANU (2008-2011); Fellow at Department of Political and Social Change, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, ANU (2005-2008) | Books, among others: Democracy for Sale (2019), The State and Illegality in Indonesia (2011), Islam and Nation: Separatist Rebellion in Aceh, Indonesia (2009), Opposing Soeharto (2005).