Indonesia post-reformasi

Correspondence in Australian Foreign Affairs

“Retreat from Democracy?”

by Tim Lindsey

Andrew MacIntyre

Tim Lindsey’s excellent essay, “Retreat from Democracy?” (Australian Foreign Affairs 3, July 2018), lays out clearly just how much the political climate in Indonesia has changed over the past decade. The optimism about extending democratic reform is gone, as is the hope that systemic corruption might be wound back, and there is an increasingly conservative mood as religious chauvinism is fanned by Islamist hardliners.

Such changes are a cause for genuine concern. But the picture is not all bleak. Perspective and expectations make a difference. Compared to Indonesia’s recent past, the picture is depressing. But compared to the experiences of other young democracies, it is less so.

Democratic consolidation is rarely smooth. Young democracies typically undergo duress due to intense action and counter-action as reform is negotiated, to say nothing of the everyday political battles among competing economic, social and other sectional interests. Indonesia is no exception.

Earlier this year the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index registered a sharp fall in the quality of Indonesia’s democracy. Professor Edward Aspinall has documented the various areas in which reform in Indonesia has stalled or been eroded. While it is quite possible that Indonesian democracy could continue to deteriorate, at this stage the fundamental commitment to free elections and peaceful transitions between governments is holding. Political preferences have shifted in a conservative direction and intolerance has increased, but electoral democracy itself has endured.

The shift to the right has become starkly apparent in the last few years. President Joko Widodo’s shock announcement in August that conservative Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin would be his running mate in the April 2019 election is the most recent political tidemark. The crackdown on LGBTI communities and oft-heard anecdotes about Christians having to keep an ever lower profile, or of progressive Muslims being ostracised from their social media networks, are all manifestations of the new moral and social conservatism.

For anyone inside or outside Indonesia hoping for a strengthening of its democracy, this shift is troubling. What effect might it have on relations between Australia and Indonesia?

Any conceivable government in Indonesia will be a coalition of parties, and as such an amalgam of interests. So it is not clear that, for example, the rise of conservative Muslim groups will have a significant effect on economic policy beyond adding some extra weight to existing nationalistic arguments. But without doubt, the swing to the right means Australia should expect a more conservative stance from Indonesia on social issues. This will present challenging questions around values for a range of Australian organisations engaging in Indonesia – including, notably, universities. The treatment of religious minorities and LGBTI communities are conspicuous examples of Indonesia’s differing values. Issues around cultural identity and rights for minority groups are others.

In terms of strategy and defence, the new conservatism in Indonesia may, paradoxically, foster increased alignment between Canberra and Jakarta. The conservative Muslim political forces that drive intolerance of minorities advocate an equally strong distrust of China. This arises variously from longstanding antipathy towards Indonesians of Chinese descent, opposition to the way Beijing treats Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang, and a nationalistic reaction to the surge of Chinese foreign investment in Indonesia. Indonesia’s leaders and especially its military establishment have long been wary of China. The rising influence of conservative Muslim forces is likely to add a significantly stronger political base to this pre-existing policy orientation.

Ten years ago, when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was at the height of his presidency, and the acute instability of the early post-Suharto years had been overcome, Douglas Ramage and I wrote a report, ‘Seeing Indonesia as Normal Country (as Lindsey notes in his essay). We highlighted how much things had improved, but argued that the bilateral relationship under Yudhoyono was as good as it was going to get for the foreseeable future. We did not forecast the extent of Indonesia’s swing to the right, but the core instinct was sound.

For Australian foreign policy interests, the single most important variable is Indonesia’s continued economic progress. This is the underpinning of its social and political fortunes. And here the prospects are hopeful. Although Indonesia seems unable to achieve growth rates of the best-performing Asian economies, sustained growth around 5 per cent annually is still good. If, as most analysts project, this can be maintained, the prospects for democracy enduring remain alive.

And in the longer term, while Indonesia has recently become less inclusive and less tolerant of diversity, there are still grounds for believing in what Ramage and I refer to as its “fundamental pluralism”. This is a reference to the long arc of the social history of the archipelago we know today as Indonesia and the effect of its geographic and cultural diversity. Yes, we must be concerned with Indonesia’s current realities, but its underlying diversity will not suddenly disappear, and can be counted on to assert itself over time.

Andrew MacIntyre is deputy vice-chancellor of global development and director of The Australian APEC Study Centre at RMIT University.

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