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How is Indonesia’s democracy doing?

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In Brief

Since the mid 1990s, the proportion of countries in the world that are democracies – countries that meet the standard of at least electoral democracies in the sense that they can choose their leaders and replace them in free and fair elections – has stagnated, at around 60 and 62.5 per cent.

The world is experiencing a democratic recession. There are three dimensions of this.


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Firstly, there is levelling off of in the extent of democracy.

Secondly, there has been a rise in incidence of democratic breakdown in the world. Of the 29 democratic breakdowns since the third wave of democratization began in 1974, 17 (59 per cent) have occurred since 1999.

Thirdly many of these democratic breakdowns have happened in places that can be considered big, strategically important states, powers in their regions, and peers of Indonesia.

Indonesia is now labelled by Freedom House as a ‘free country’ – although this is a somewhat misleadingly broad category. Nevertheless, Indonesia is doing better today than any of the democracies that lost democracy were at the time they lost it.

A worrisome trend is the recent erosion not only of democracy but of levels of freedom. The last three years – 2006, 2007, 2008 – are the first three successive years since the end of the Cold War when the number of countries declining in a given year in their levels of freedom exceeded the number of countries improving their levels of freedom.

The fact that Indonesia is holding its own at a relatively good level of political rights and civil liberties is itself a noteworthy achievement.

While Indonesia’s civil liberties, political rights, and levels of governance have improved since 2005, it still has levels of governance, by a number of measures, which are in some respects in the category of vulnerability. The trend recently has been to suggest that Indonesia has either consolidated democracy or is very far along the path of doing so. There are grounds for being a little more sceptical.

Nevertheless, the level of public support for democracy in Indonesia compares favourably compared to other regions of the world. Globally there is a growing ambivalence toward democracy.

In East Asia and Africa only about half of respondents, in various surveys, on average rejected all of the 3 authoritarian options put to them: the military coming back to power; one party rule; and getting rid of parliament and having a strong ruler decide everything.
The cause of this is basically the reputation a government has in respect of bad governance.

So, how do Indonesia’s levels of governance and democracy fare in these comparisons?

A common story is that Indonesia began, at its moment of democratic transition in 1998, with pretty bad governance on most measures.

One measure of governance is economic performance. Indonesia’s average rate of GDP growth during the past decade has been respectable compared to a set of other significant emerging market democracies regionally and globally.

Indonesia’s Human Development Index (HDI) score, perhaps the most meaningful measure of economic development – incorporating standards of living, health, and education – improved almost 10 per cent between 1995 and 2006, reaching 73 per cent. This rate of improvement is greater than many of its peers, such as the Philippines and Thailand, and Indonesia has now almost caught up with the Philippines in terms of its HDI score.

A number of measures of governance used by the World Bank are also useful.

In 1998 Indonesia was in the bottom quintile in the world in terms of its level of voice and accountability. Only about 7 or 8 countries have improved their voice and accountability score as dramatically as Indonesia has. It now outranks several other countries, even Turkey surprisingly, and has overtaken the Philippines as well. But Indonesia is still out ranked by some more established democracies in East Asia.

In control of corruption Indonesia’s improvement in performance has been even more dramatic. But it started from an incredibly low level at the 9th percentile that it is still in the bottom third in the world. While Indonesia has now taken a higher position than the Philippines in terms of control of corruption too, it clearly needs to go further.

The rule of law in Indonesia has barely improved at all, and is still very weak. This is something we should worry about. And this is why we should exercise some caution in advancing a judgement that democracy in Indonesia is now consolidated. Even with respect to some not very well performing countries in the region, in terms of rule of law Indonesia finishes dead last among the democracies or quasi democracies in Asia.

Indonesia has of course improved it Freedom House score dramatically more than any of the countries in the sample. But again, it started from such a low level that it still has ground to catch up despite the improvements.

On the rule of law and political stability, things got worse between 1998 and 2003. Here you can really see the impact of the Yudhoyono presidency in terms of bringing about, or at least witnessing, significant improvements in the quality of governance.

An encouraging sign is how Indonesians view and value democracy relative to their peers in 5 other Asian countries. On a scale of 1 to 10 – with 10 being most democratic – survey participants were asked ‘to what extent they think their country is a democracy today?’ Indonesians gave an average score of 7 out of 10. Asked ‘to what extent do you want your country to be a democracy?’, Indonesians ranked very highly giving an average score of 8.5 out of 10.

Asked whether they supported democracy, 65 per cent of Indonesian said yes. And asked whether they were satisfied with the current democratic system 59 per cent answered yes.

Also, 56 per cent of Indonesians rejected authoritarianism. This is a reasonably healthy figure. If this was increased to 70 per cent, and was sustained for a prolonged period of time, we could more surely say that democracy has been consolidated. But it is premature to say it is already consolidated. Nevertheless, given the history and turbulence in Indonesia this is a surprisingly high score.

Support for liberal values is surprisingly high in Indonesia at 47 per cent. This vastly outstrips Thailand and the Philippines. Since this is usually highly correlated with education and economic development, and given limited years of experience with democracy, Indonesia is way ahead of where you would expect the country to be on the liberal values scale. They are much closer to Korea and Taiwan. And this is the single most telling indicator.

Looking in historical terms, and in comparative terms, what Indonesia has achieved in the last 10 years (in terms of the development and improvement of democratic institutions, a critical and substantial base of public support for democracy, of trust in public institutions, and, surprisingly perhaps, robust support for liberal values relative to elsewhere in the region) is quite remarkable and is deserving of admiration.

Yet democracy in Indonesia will not stand or fall on how well it is doing relative to other democracies in the world. It will stand or fall in terms of how well it is doing in itself.

It is worrying when somebody tries to set up a serious counter corruption institution and then it falters, never gets off the ground, and an audit commission never develops momentum, autonomy, vigour, and real capacity, because its just too threatening to vested interests in the system. This is the canary in the coal mine of democracies.

The conclusion that democracy in Indonesia is secure, for all time, not just for these few years, will be safe only when there has been more progress toward better governance than there has been so far.

Larry Diamond is Director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford, and author of ‘The Spirit of Democracy’.

3 responses to “How is Indonesia’s democracy doing?”

  1. Indonesia is of course the fourth largest country in the world, with almost 240 million people, approximately 4% of the world’s population. As a result, improvements in democracy have comparatively large effects.

    This article strikes the right tone, in my opinion. I expect things to continue in this way under SBY.

  2. Dear author of this story:

    I tried to find the source for your graphs and could not find them.

    I also wanted to know what the “average of seven item scale of liberal values” means.

  3. The source for my graphs is the Asian Barometer, based at National Taiwan University. The average of the seven-item liberal values scale is the average level of agreement in each country with each of seven statements that reflects liberal values. So in Indonesia, the average level of liberal response, across these seven statements, was 47%.

    The items can be found in the Asian Barometer and in my full paper for the book being edited by Edward Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner.

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