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Is Indonesia retreating from democracy?

4 11 22
11.07.2018

This is an edited extract from Tim Lindsey’s essay ‘Retreat from Democracy’, which appears in Australian Foreign Affairs #3, published 9 July.

FOR much of the past 20 years, Indonesia has been held up as a model of democratic transition for other countries, particularly those with significant Muslim populations.

Indonesia’s leaders like to present their nation as embodying an exemplary path away from authoritarianism.

Their form of government, they say, is tolerant yet enshrines religious practice, offering a political alternative for Muslim communities that is more palatable to the West than the failed Arab Spring and the extremist catastrophes that have engulfed the Middle East since the US intervened in Afghanistan and Iraq.

SEE ALSO: #20TahunReformasi: Celebrating 20 years of Indonesian democracy

This view of Indonesia now needs rethinking. The country’s hard-won advances towards liberalism and tolerance may be under threat. This nation of more than 260 million people – over 85 percent of them Muslim – has often been called the “smiling face of Islam”, but that label may no longer apply.

Indonesia’s recent questioning of its own liberal-democratic aspirations has been accompanied by growing expressions of intolerance, including violence towards vulnerable minorities. As next year’s presidential election approaches, the temptation to resort to regressive identity politics and opportunistic populism will increase, and Indonesia’s departure from its post-1998 progressive tilt is likely to become more pronounced.

Sliding towards a ‘Neo New Order’?

In Indonesia today, reform has stagnated. Although the democratic transition in 1998 was presented as a national consensus, this was never entirely true. It always had opponents, some of whom felt politically constrained to accept democratisation as a necessary evil but never accepted it as a final settlement.

As well as the hardliners, today these include enormously wealthy oligarchs, tenacious survivors of former dictator Suharto’s regime and elements of the armed forces. These disparate forces that together form Indonesia’s revisionist and populist right have little in common and often compete with one another.

A masked student holds a placard showing Indonesian President Suharto sitting on a throne on a bed of US dollar notes and carrying a signthat reads “absolute power” during a demonstration at the........

© Asian Correspondent