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Ideological polarisation is the price of democratic representation in Indonesia

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Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Vice President Ma'ruf Amin, House Speaker Puan Maharani, Chairman of the People's Consultative Assembly Bambang Soesatyo, and the Chairman of Regional Representative Council La Nyalla Mattalitti, enter the parliament building for the annual State of the Nation Address ahead of the country's Independence Day, at the parliament building in Jakarta, Indonesia, 16 August 2021 (Photo: Pool via Reuters/Achmad Ibrahim).

In Brief

Democratic backsliding — understood as the decline of democratic norms, institutions, and processes — is a well-documented development that has concerned most world regions, and Indonesia offers an apt illustration of how this unsettling phenomenon may unfold. After the breakdown of authoritarianism in the late 1990s, it defied expectations by establishing democratic institutions and implementing several waves of free and fair national and local elections. But Indonesia’s democratic trajectory has since taken a darker turn, marked by illiberalism, polarisation and the rise of radical political Islam.


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Given these trends it would be reasonable to assume that ordinary Indonesians are increasingly disillusioned with the country’s democratic institutions. Yet public opinion data presents a contrasting picture, as the erosion of democracy has not been accompanied by a rise in public dissatisfaction with democracy.

Rather, Indonesians have become more satisfied with how democracy is practised in their country. Just before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020, satisfaction with democracy reached an all-time high of about 76 per cent. This strong positive trend appears to have started in the mid-2010s, at about the same time that observers of Indonesian politics began to argue that the country’s democracy was deteriorating.

This puzzle can be understood by focusing on political representation. Though democracy in Indonesia may be falling short of expectations, the deep-rooted ideological division regarding the role of Islam in politics has provided Indonesian citizens with meaningful political choices, pitting pluralist understandings of society against more exclusionary Islamist ideologies.

This cleavage underpins substantive debates about issues such as religious equality, women’s rights, individual freedoms and privacy. While they may be unhappy about some of Indonesia’s democratic institutions and the slow pace of political reform, Indonesians still value their democracy’s ability to provide meaningful representation and avenues for participation. This view is supported by a wealth of empirical data, ranging from electoral returns to surveys of public opinion and the diversity of Indonesian politicians.

This perspective on democratic institutions reveals the complexity of democratic erosion, both in Indonesia and beyond. Increasing polarisation and Islamism may well be injurious to Indonesian democracy, but their implications for political representation may help to explain why Indonesians have become more satisfied with the country’s democracy.

In the minds of the Indonesian public, increasing partisan polarisation may have clarified the ideological division over the role of Islam in politics and consolidated perceptions that important political alternatives exist. The increasing influence of radical Islam observed in the second half of the 2010s may have also bolstered perceptions of fair representation, especially among Islamist Indonesians — a substantial minority in the electorate who have long been underrepresented in political institutions.

Beyond Indonesia, studies of democratic backsliding often see democratic development as a movement along a linear trajectory, where a country becomes more or less democratic over time. Yet dividing opposing partisan camps into either democratic or anti-democratic is problematic. Rather, there is often a clash of values between two different understandings of democracy. Pluralist-liberal camps emphasise the importance of constraints on executive power while populist camps prioritise majoritarianism and substantive representation. This conflict stems from a tension between equally legitimate democratic demands and it typically entails a trade-off between different democratic goals, such as liberalism, egalitarianism, participation and representation.

The repression of radical Islamist groups such as Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia or the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam) illustrates these conflicting dynamics. Disbanding these organisations may have reaffirmed Indonesia’s commitment to protecting religious minorities, but repression may also cause negative long-term implications for democratic representation.

Suppressing radical Islam has curbed the mobilising capacity of illiberal actors, but to deprive Islamist groups of their ability to mobilise is also to deprive a substantial number of Indonesian citizens of their voice. When this happens, substantive debates about the most important ideological dimension of political competition in this country become less meaningful and democratic legitimacy may eventually be compromised.

Indonesia’s democracy also suffers from a lack of genuine cohesive opposition that could function as a check on executive power. Given the current landscape of Indonesian politics, a cohesive opposition could only take the form of an assertive Islamist camp. A more prominent role for radical political Islam is a necessary condition for the emergence of this political bloc.

Indonesia is therefore facing a thorny trade-off between consolidating liberal values — which requires a clearer separation between religion and politics — and strengthening democratic representation and accountability — which requires ideological alignment between citizens and politicians and clearly identifiable opposing partisan camps. The future of democracy in this country will hinge upon its ability to find a balanced solution to this dilemma.

Diego Fossati is Assistant Professor at the Department of Public and International Affairs, City University of Hong Kong.

One response to “Ideological polarisation is the price of democratic representation in Indonesia”

  1. I cannot see how the repression of openly anti democratic, anti state organisations should be called democratic regression….Indonesia, along a few others in the region is among the few countries that has seen its government legitimacy index improving last decade, while government legitimacy totally collapsed in western liberal democracies…..the rise of fascism in Europe is a democratic regression in itself, suppressing these violent groups would certainly not be called a democratic regression.

    “A more prominent role for radical political Islam is a necessary condition for the emergence of this political bloc.”…certainly not, Indonesian knows too well how dangerous these groups can be, and therefore should not be part of the democratic conversation…

    There won’t be a separation of religion and politic, as Indonesia is a religious state, bot a secular state, and this won’t change anytime soon, while it will remain an hybrid regime, en electoral democracy only…

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