Indonesia: Does Democracy Deliver?

13 December 2017 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme


Approximately 400 delegates from 99 countries and seven international organisations gathered earlier this month in Indonesia for the tenth Bali Democracy Forum. The forum, which was relocated to Tangerang due to the Mount Agung eruptions, took place on 7-8 December and featured the central question ‘Does Democracy Deliver?’ Several bilateral meetings also took place at the sidelines of the forum as Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi met with ministers from Singapore and Timor-Leste as well as several other ministers from Muslim-majority countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.


Often criticised as being little more than a talk fest, the forum drew little attention from Indonesian and Australian media outlets despite it being the tenth anniversary of the event. Most of the attention given to the forum was due to comments made by attendees about the decision of United States President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Donning a Palestinian keffiyeh to show solidarity with the Palestinian people, Marsudi used her opening address at the event to rebuke Trump’s decision. While the statement deviated from the original intention of the forum, it nonetheless proved to be the ideal arena for Indonesia to re-affirm its position as a model for Muslim democracy, a position that has been threatened by hardline Islamic forces. As the world’s largest Muslim country using the democratic forum as a platform for activism, Indonesia seeks to legitimise its position in world affairs among both Muslim countries and Western democracies.

Although attendees at the conference were unsurprisingly optimistic and praiseworthy of the democratic values that underpin their respective countries’ political systems, some challenges to democracy were also raised, such as populism. As noted in a recent Strategic Analysis Paper, the rise of populism in Indonesia could be detrimental to its position as a beacon of Muslim democracy and a moderate voice in international affairs. Particularly worrying is the use of misinformation to “soften” the public up for political gain. An example of that is how certain Indonesian officials have used the threat of “proxy wars” to legitimise a tougher, but unnecessary, stance on certain issues to rally up a support base. Misinformation was also a factor in the charging of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (commonly known as Ahok), with blasphemy in May 2017. Ahok consequently lost the election for governor of Jakarta and was sentenced to two years’ jail, despite being a widely popular (albeit controversial) candidate.

The case of Ahok is a worrying indicator of the tactics that may be used in the 2019 election. Rallying the Indonesian people around a single cause will be an effective campaign strategy. Rallying Indonesian Muslims against a threat or antagonist will be especially effective. That has already been seen by the hundreds of thousands of protesters who amassed to stand against Ahok on 2 December 2016. A campaign run along such lines could become highly divisive and serve to entrench suspicions, especially if minority groups are accused of being antithetical to Islam. In fact, they are already portrayed as such in certain narratives of “proxy war” spread by some Indonesian officials. A repeat of the Ahok protests against a presidential candidate during the elections will be a blow for democracy, but a win for candidates on the other side of the protests. While it would not be an “Armageddon” for democracy in Indonesia, it could very well weaken the fundamentals of the democratic process.

Perhaps a more pertinent question to ask is will democracy deliver in 2019?

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