Indonesian Democracy: From Stagnation to Transformation?

by Olle Törnquist

Democratic reform in the world's showcase 'new democracy' has stalled. What hope does the recent election of Jokowi bring?

First published: 04 November, 2014 | Category: Democracy, South East Asia

Indonesia is regularly hailed as a showcase ‘new democracy’—an all too rare democratic success story from the post-1970s Global South.1 Conditions there were far from ideal for the emergence of a liberal democratic regime. But despite a background of more than three decades of harsh dictatorship, endemic corruption, capitalist growth based the extraction of resources and dizzying inequalities, the post-Suharto order has not collapsed. Indeed, Indonesia is the freest country in South East Asia, and has managed to combine vibrant elections with political stability and sustained economic growth.

This month saw the presidential inauguration of Joko Widodo, known popularly as ‘Jokowi’, after a bitterly contested campaign against super rich oligarch Prabowo Subianto, a former Special Forces General and son-in-law of Suharto. A modest local businessman, mayor and then governor of Jakarta, Jokowi’s populist pro-democracy platform saw him to a narrow win. His victory illustrates both the real achievements and the profound limits of Indonesian democracy; fortunately, it also highlights possibilities for substantive reform.

Elitist democratisation

Observers of Indonesian politics broadly agree on both its successes and its problems. Indonesia permits relative freedom for private enterprise, freedom of association and free elections. Destabilising identity politics has been successfully contained and dominant political actors have been largely reconciled to the democratic ‘rules of the game’. Critics add, however, that corruption and cronyism persist, and that the pace of reforms has stagnated.2

The early years of outgoing president Yudhoyono’s reign, which began in 2004, saw political stability and economic growth; pledges to fight corruption; a democracy-oriented truce in Aceh; increasing involvement of civil society activists in politics, and the emergence of several promising leaders—Jokowi among them—from directly elected positions in local politics. Recent years have seen a regression on most fronts: persistent corruption, including within the president’s own party; Aceh’s backsliding into ineffective and corrupt rule by conservative former rebels and harsh sharia laws; ever greater domination of parliamentary politics by monied interests, and difficulties in broadening growth beyond favourably priced commodities for export, cheap labour and middle class consumption.

There are three major ways of thinking about this. The dominant liberal view is that Indonesia proves the possibility of rapid democratisation, and that its problems, while real, are no worse than anywhere else in the Global South or during the early phases of democratisation in North America and Europe. Reforms such as more public funding of parties and efforts by civil society activists and union leaders to enter mainstream politics will eventually take the country towards full liberal democracy.3 The contrary and increasingly influential structuralist position is held by conservatives on the one hand and radical Marxists on the other. The conservatives agree with Samuel Huntington’s (1965) old and Fukuyama’s (2014) new position, that democratisation increases corruption and conflict and must therefore be preceded by a ‘politics of order’ and efficient state-building.4 The political corollary in Indonesia is a desire for ‘stronger leadership’. The radicals by contrast5 survey contemporary Indonesian politics and conclude that little has changed since Suharto, except that the oligarchs are no longer ruled by Suharto and his inner circle but by themselves and their figureheads who form political cartels.6 In addition, decentralisation has enabled a wider circle of business actors to gain access to favourable contracts and concessions through politics. Hence Indonesia is an oligarchic democracy, whose reform requires structural change on the level of political economy. Marxists like Max Lane see a potential for accomplishing this in progressive unions and social movements,7 but most political economists deem these, as well as progressive middle-class and business organisations, far too weak. The upshot of these structuralist analyses is therefore that more substantive democracy Indonesia must wait, either for a further augmentation of state capacity (say the conservatives) or for the development of capitalism beyond accumulation based on plunder and cheap labour, and the consequent emergence of a business constituency with an interest in predictable and transparent regulation through the rule of law (say the radicals).

A third, social democratic oriented position is that reform has stalled for the same reasons it was initially successful.8 Indonesia’s democratic transition was in effect a shift from dictatorial to opportunist rule, by means of a pact between ‘moderate’ actors in the opposition and the old regime based upon the exclusion of hardline supporters of dictatorship, on the one hand, and popular movements, on the other. This elitist model of democratisation rested on two pillars: marginalisation of popular movements, and depoliticisation, in the form of privatisation and the transfer of jurisdictions to technocrats, the courts and local elites. Initially this served the purpose of involving the powerful actors in developing and thus adhering to the new rules of the game, opening up for stability and growth and thereby even invalidating Huntington’s and Fukuyama’s theses that democratisation has to be proceeded by ‘politics of order’ and strong state-building.   But over the years the effect of both pillars has been to restrict the ability of popular constituencies and the progressive interests among middle classes and businessmen to press against corruption and struggle for the rule of law and inclusive development. As a result, the ‘moderate’ actors have abstained, and been free to abstain, from seriously addressing corruption, improving legal consistency and transparency and broadening political representation. Instead, they have been content to enjoy the privilege of having their fingers in the pie. Initially successful in facilitating a stable transition from old to new regime, the elitist principles on which the transition was based have thus caused Indonesian politics to stagnate.

This analysis suggests that liberal hopes for further democratisation by simply tweaking institutions at the top are misplaced. The necessary political reforms will become possible only following a transformation of the social balance of power, such that currently marginalised interests among labour, small farmers, middle classes and production oriented capitalist are empowered to shape their governing institutions. But whereas Marxist scholars would insist that democratisation can proceed only once capitalism has become sufficiently progressive or through the mass deployment of ‘people power’ on the streets, and whereas the likes of Samuel Huntington (1965) and Francis Fukuyama (2014) claim that democracy must be deferred until the requisite state capacity has been built up under a period of enlightened authoritarian rule, I and other social democratic observers wonder where sufficiently many of these progressive capitalists, trustworthy and capable people power activists and/or enlightened rulers are to be found. For us, the most plausible path to radically altered power relations is through transformative democratic politics, in the form of political struggles for reforms that increase the political capacity and representation of actors with a genuine interest in fighting corruption, promoting the rule of law and deepening democracy. 

Jokowi’s welfare populism

This background established, what is the significance of Jokowi’s rise and what prospects does it hold out going forward?

Within the sphere of mainstream politics, Prabowo represents most of the oligarchs and political and administrative elite that survived the Suharto regime. Jokowi’s mainstream base is three-fold: rival oligarchs from Suharto’s old Golkar party, such as vice president Jusuf Kalla and media mogul Surya Paloh; political, religious and military elites behind Sukarno’s daughter Megawati, the traditional Muslims and former army leader Wiranto, respectively; and many of the politicians, administrators and business people who have benefited from the radical decentralisation that took place after Suharto and from 2004, not least by means of the direct election of political executives as heads of villages and districts, and as mayors and governors. These elections may only occasionally have fostered better governance; but they have undermined the centralised powers of the major oligarchs, generals, top level bureaucrats and party bosses. Moreover the direct elections have at times enabled scattered pro-democrats, who have been unable to form effective parties, to rally behind relatively progressive political figures—among them, Jokowi  

More promisingly, Jokowi does not only stand for a critique of the centralistic strong-man policies represented by Prabowo. Jokowi also represents a desire for local negotiations in increasingly chaotic and ungovernable urban areas between, on the one hand, business and middle classes who want plots for commercial ventures and space for cleaner cities, and, on the other, subordinated classes being dispossessed of land, housing and livelihood.9 Similar problems occur frequently in rural and semi-urban areas where people are threatened by deforestation and land grabbing on the part of commercial interests. 

Thus, Jokowi is part of and at times benefits from two of the most important socioeconomic trends in Indonesia: the rise of populism and participation, and growing demands for a welfare state and inclusive development. Both trends have the potential to feed into a broad political alliance in favour of transformative social democratic policies.10

The new trends are most visible on the political level. Generally, mobilising political support in the Global South is done through patronage and clientelism. In Indonesia, these mechanisms continue to predominate in those constituencies characterised by stable relationships between patrons, bosses, and employers, on the one hand, and the electorate on the other. In other constituencies in Indonesia and elsewhere, however, post-clientelism has developed.11 Here clientelism must be supplemented in order to attract more independent voters among middle classes and uprooted people in new workplaces and settlements. Instead of patronage, these people tend to prefer fair government programmes. In Indonesia post-clientelism has been most obvious in the direct elections of political executives in a number of urban and semi-urban areas dominated by commerce, industry and educational institutions.

A central post-clientelistic technique is populism, i.e. politics conducted through a relatively direct relationship between a charismatic leader and the people. Conservative national populism is typically combined with identity politics, as in the case of Modi in India, and/or ‘strong leadership’, as in the cases of Thaksin in Thailand and Prabowo in Indonesia. As against these forms of conservative populism, Jokowi represents a more participatory and welfare oriented populism, with firmer roots in territorial citizenship. Special features of this are non-corrupt and better public service, better public education, more substantial social security and the previously mentioned local negotiations between business, middle classes, workers and the urban poor to manage chaotic urban development. 

Social democracy upside down

The neoliberal informalisation of employment relations adds to these interests in public services, welfare and negotiated development. Efficient modern units are combined with poorly developed ones and there is pervasive subcontracting and temporary and self-employment. As a result, Indonesia’s uneven industrial and commercial growth has delivered less unified workplaces and fixed employment relations than expected. As it is therefore increasingly difficult to bargain effectively with employers, contract labourers, domestic workers and the self-employed must turn to the state and politicians for support. At times union leaders, too, have been forced to join with contract labourers and others, in part because in Indonesia’s labour market, workplace bargaining is insufficient; broad alliances and public support are also needed. In this context, demands for fixed employment relations, collective wage agreements and, when necessary, minimum wage regulations must be combined with a struggle for as universal as possible public services, welfare measures and economic policies that may generate more jobs. First, because demands for such measures can unify a broad alliance of notoriously fragmented groups with otherwise variant interests. Second, so that the costs involved can be shared by as many citizens as possible through public rather than private provisioning; this also fosters voluntary redistribution of wealth.12

In the Global North, extensive industrialisation birthed and unified powerful labour movements that could negotiate with similarly unified representatives of employers and build alliances with farmers and white workers to foster inclusive economic growth and welfare states. Many historical social democratic experiences remain valid. These include democratic participation in public governance and the development of services and social security that provide welfare but also strengthen the representation and bargaining power of the subordinated groups while promoting inclusive growth.13 But the kind of massive industrialisation that generated fairly unified labour movements will not be repeated in the Global South.14 Instead, the uneven character of development (including the combination of efficient and inefficient units, scattered workplaces, and informalised employment) may foster concerted popular action by alliances of otherwise disparate constituencies in favour of public regulation, provisioning and social welfare as well as economic policies geared towards greater production and competition as well as increasing employment. Moreover, the alliances created by these struggles might then push on for fairer social pacts and more inclusive growth. This would amount, in effect, to historical social democracy turned upside down, with demands for rights and regulations rather than industrial development generating broad alliances and political development. 

Are any of these potential developments in fact unfolding? In addition to varied experiences in other parts of the Global South which cannot be expanded upon here, two Indonesian cases stand out amidst persistent fragmentation and poor organisation. One relates to the alliances and negotiations that developed around Jokowi’s local electoral victories and governance during his political rise, from 2004 in the city of Solo15 via the Jakarta region between 2012 and 2014 to the present national level. As previously mentioned, a number of scattered popular organisations, civil society activists and intellectuals have been able to cohere behind Jokowi's efficient management and deals negotiated with powerful business and political elites. Similarly, contributions by many thousands of volunteers were crucial in tipping the balance in the presidential election campaign.  The second case is the successful broad alliance between trade unions and various popular organisations and civil society groups from around 2010 for progressive social security legislation, spearheaded among others by parliamentarian Rieke Dyah Pitaloka of Megawati’s Democratic Party of Struggle,16 and the untold story of what has happened to efforts at sustaining and further developing such alliances. 

These developments are extremely promising and call for close study. The future will depend upon Jokowi’s management of looming economic and political troubles. Worryingly, Prabowo has already induced the central parliament to scrap direct local elections. If this decision cannot be reversed, the space for democratisation will be severely curtailed. Further, Jokowi and his close supporters may prove unable to combine increased access to public services, social security and labour rights, on the one hand, with efforts at inclusive economic growth, on the other. One major reason for this is that vice-president Kalla and important Jokowi sponsors in the chambers of commerce and employers’ associations are likely to dominate economic and labour market policies, while Jokowi may end up substituting genuine reform with ‘hand-outs’, as did Sonia Gandhi and a series of welfare oriented governments in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in India. Finally, Jokowi does not have the luxury of oil wealth, á la Brazil, while revenues from other export commodities have fallen as the Chinese economy, in particular, slows down. He therefore has no choice but to remove long-standing fuel subsidies. This is likely to generate protests, quite possibly drummed up by unions allied to Prabowo. One hopes Jokowi and his team will offer a more fruitful strategic perspective in the form of a publicly supported pact between unions, other popular organisations and employers to redirect the public resources now spent on fuel subsidies to social security, labour regulations and industrial development. But will he be able to convince his vice president, in particular, to go along with this? And would such agreements enjoy sufficient public trust?

The outcome is far from given. Much depends on the ability of currently scattered popular organisations and civil society activists to build upon the extra-parliamentary alliances described above and work with progressive politicians to press a core set of demands for public services, social rights, decent employment relations, inclusive growth and democratic participation in public governance. This in turn calls for new priorities among international supporters of Indonesian democratisation. It is high time to set aside the conventional preference for democratisation based on pacts between moderate elites. In Indonesia, the privileges of the moderate elite are precisely what is preventing further progress.  

Olle Törnquist is Professor of Political Science and Development Research at the University of Oslo.



E.g. Larry Diamond, ‘Indonesia’s place in global democracy’, in Edward Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner eds., Problems of Democratisation in Indonesia: Elections, Institutions and Society (Singapore: ISEAS, 2010); Donald Horowitz, Constitutional Change and Democracy in Indonesia (New York: Cambridge UP, 2013).

E.g. PWD (Purwo Santoso, Olle Törnquist, Amalinda Savirani, Eric Hiariej, Hasrul Hanif, Willy Purna Samadhi, Debbie Prabawati, Wening Hapsari M), Executive Summary: Democracy Baseline Survey Power Welfare and Democracy (PWD), Universitas Gadjah Mada and University of Oslo (Jogjakarta: UGM, 2014).

Marcus Mietzner, Money, Power and Ideology: Political Parties in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia, ASAA, Southeast Asia Publication Series (Singapore and Copenhagen: NUS Press and NIAS, 2013); Edward Aspinall, ‘The irony of success’, Journal of Democracy 21.2 (April 2010), pp. 20-34; Edward Aspinall, ‘The triumph of capital? Class politics and Indonesian democratisation’, Journal of Contemporary Asia 43.2 (2013), p. 229; Teri L. Caraway and Michelle Ford, ‘Labour and politics under oligarchy’, in M. Ford and T.B. Pepinsky eds., Beyond Oligarchy? Wealth, Power and Contemporary Indonesian Politics (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2014).

Samuel P. Huntington, ‘Political Development and Political Decay’, World Politics 17.3 (1965), pp. 386-430; Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy (London: Profile Books, 2014).

Jeffrey A. Winters, Oligarchy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011); Jeffrey A. Winters, ‘Oligarchy and democracy in Indonesia’, in Ford and Pepinsky, Beyond Oligarchy?; Richard Robison and Vedi Hadiz, Reorganising Power in Indonesia: The Politics of Oligarchy in an Age of Markets (London: Routledge Curzon, 2004); Richard Robison and Vedi Hadiz, ‘The political economy of oligarchy and the reorganisation of power in Indonesia’, in Ford and Pepinsky, Beyond Oligarchy?.

Dan Slater, ‘Democratic careening’, World Politics 65.4 (2013).

Max Lane, Decentralization and it Discontents. An Essay on Class, Political Agency and National Perspective in Indonesian Politics (Singapore: ISEAS, 2014).

Stanley Adi Prasetyo, Olle Törnquist and A.E. Priyono (with T. Burks), Indonesia’s Post-Suharto Democracy Movement (Jakarta: Demos, 2003); A.E. Priyono, Willy P. Samadhi and Olle Törnquist (with T. Birks), Making Democracy Meaningful: Problems and Options in Indonesia (Jakarta and Singapore: DEMOS and ISEAS, 2007); Willy P. Samadhi and Nico Warouw eds., Building Democracy on the Sand: Advances and Setbacks in Indonesia 2nd ed. (Jakarta and Jogjakarta: DEMOS and PCD Press, 2009); PWD, Executive Summary; Olle Törnquist, Assessing Dynamic Democratisation. Transformative Politics, New Institutions, and the Case of Indonesia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Cf. Henk Schulte Nordholt, ‘Decentralisation in Indonesia: less state, more democracy?’, in J. Harris, K. Stokke and O. Törnquist eds., Politicising Democracy: The New Local Politics of Democratisation (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2004); G. van Klinken, ‘Patronage democracy in provincial Indonesia’, in O. Törnquist, N. Webster and K. Stokke eds., Rethinking Popular Representation (New York: Palgrave, 2009).

Cf. Pratikno and Cornelis Lay, ‘From populism to democratic polity: problems and challenges in Solo, Indonesia’, in Kristian Stokke and Olle Törnquist eds., Democratisation in the Global South: The Importance of Transformative Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013).

10 PWD, Executive Summary.

11 Cf. James Manor, ‘Post-clientelist initiatives’, in Stokke and Törnquist, Democratisation in the Global South.

12 Törnquist, Dynamic Democratisation; PWD, Executive Summary.

13 K. Stokke and O. Törnquist, ‘Transformative democratic politics’, ‘The relevance of the Scandinavian experiences’, and ‘Experiences and strategic interventions in transformative democratic politics’, in Stokke and Törnquist, Democratisation in the Global South.

14 Göran Therborn, ‘Class in the 21st century’, New Left Review 78 (November-December 2012), pp. 5-29.

15 Pratikno and Lay, ‘Populism to democratic’.

16 Cf. Rachelle Peta Cole, ‘Coalescing for change: opportunities, resources, tactics and Indonesia’s 2010–11 social security campaign’, Honours Thesis (University of Sydney, 2012); S. Tjandra, ‘The battle of paradigms and the Indonesian trade union movement’, Unpublished paper (Jakarta: Atma Jaya Catholic University, 2013).

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