Communiqué, Volume 5: An Investigation of Indonesia’s Improbable Democracy

January 15, 2010
Communiqué, Volume 5: An Investigation of Indonesia’s Improbable Democracy

Center Faculty Explores Democratic Practices in Former Authoritarian Regime

“Indonesia is one of the world’s most improbable democracies,” said Tarek Masoud, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and faculty affiliate of the Ash Institute. “It’s poor, ethnically diverse, geographically dispersed, and majority Muslim. Each one of these things on its own is thought to make democracy less likely; the fact that you have them all in a single country that has nevertheless managed to get and keep democracy is nothing short of remarkable.”

Formerly an authoritarian regime, Indonesia recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary as a multi-party democracy. The sustainability of Indonesia’s democracy is the subject of a recently launched, multi-year Ash Institute study. Building upon the Institute’s intellectual capital – with faculty who conduct cutting-edge research on democracy, governance, and development – the project will explore both how Indonesia can serve for a model to other democratizing countries, and how its political and economic institutions can be reformed in order to ensure that its fledgling democracy endures and thrives.

The project is part of the Ash Institute’s broader exploration of the relationships between democratic governance and social problems. The Institute’s research is organized into three broad themes:

      • Democratic strands in former and current authoritarian regimes (of which the multi-year Indonesia project is a part)
      • Innovations in democratic participation in government
      • Democracy and immigration

Successes & Challenges
At a recent JFK Forum event at Harvard Kennedy School, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono praised his nation’s diversity and postulated a shift in world economic power away from Europe toward Asia.

“We can be a powerful example that Islam, democracy, and modernity can go hand in hand,” he remarked. However, he noted that celebration of Indonesia’s progress must be tempered by a recognition of the harsh realities facing the archipelago nation. “We have actually made a lot of progress but at the same time we also face many challenges in the management of poverty and unemployment problems, and in how we can maintain and strengthen our democracy.”

The challenges are stark. While Indonesia’s GDP is projected to grow by four percent this year, the country struggles with high rates of poverty and unemployment. Its nominal GDP per capita is a modest $2200 per year, far below the minimum level of economic development thought necessary for democracy to endure. Such shaky economic ground is further unsettled by Indonesia’s near-endemic rates of corruption. Ranked 126 out of 180 in the most recent Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, Indonesia tied with such notoriously corrupt countries as Uganda, Ethiopia, and Libya. A 2005 World Values Survey notes that over 60 percent of Indonesians had little to no confidence in their country’s governing institutions, such as its parliament, the Council of People’s Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat or DPR).

Add to all of this the fact that Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world with an estimated population of 237 million people dispersed over 17,508 islands. Despite its religious homogeneity – more than 85 percent of Indonesians are Muslim – the country is ethnically fragmented: Javanese make up 40 percent of the population, followed by the Sundanese at 15 percent, with the remaining 45 percent comprised of more than 300 ethnic groups, including an often-persecuted Chinese minority of about four percent.

Reforming on the Margins: Considerations for the Future of Indonesia’s Democracy
In his recent Ash Institute working paper, “Institutional Choices for Indonesia’s Future,” Professor Masoud offers a host of considerations as the Institute launches its exploration of the country’s democratic and economic prospects. He focuses on what he considers two of Indonesia’s most pressing challenges: making public officials answerable to the people, and binding the far-flung country together. He argues that Indonesia faces a difficult tradeoff: measures to increase accountability also risk fragmenting the country politically.

For example, Masoud explains that one way to increase the accountability of public officials is to change the way they are elected. Instead of having large electoral districts in which voters cast ballots for slates of candidates put up by political parties, one could have smaller districts in which each voter casts a ballot for a single representative. Political scientists have argued that the latter system reduces the “distance” between the voter and his or her representative in parliament: Voters know whom to punish if things do not go well, and representatives know that their political futures depend solely on whether constituents are happy with their performance. The result is that the representative is, in theory, more accountable to citizens. Masoud notes, however, that representatives elected in this manner may focus myopically on the needs of their small corner of the country, with little incentive to work on behalf of broad, national goals.

This is particularly problematic given that Indonesia has already undergone a massive decentralization program that puts much of the country’s decision making and budgetary authority in the hands of local governments. Decentralization has tended to mute separatist demands, but it also makes it difficult for the government to embark on projects to improve the national welfare, or to compel rich localities to contribute to the economic uplift of poorer ones.

Managing these tradeoffs will not be easy. Masoud suggests that Indonesia may have to adopt a mixed strategy: reducing accountability in the parliament in order to strengthen national political parties, while at the same time taking steps to deepen the accountability of local executives and regional assembly members. But the overwhelming complexity of Indonesia’s political and economic landscape counsels caution. “Indonesia is where political science theories go to die,” Masoud says.

For example, Masoud notes that most scholars believe that presidential systems are less stable than parliamentary ones. However, he suggests that in Indonesia, the presidency might act as a “centripetal, nationalizing force,” in a country dominated by the centrifugal forces of localism and ethnic diversity. Moreover, the existence of the office of the presidency might even generate incentives for ex-military leaders to support and participate in democratic institutions instead of undermining them. In the last presidential election, for example, each of the three tickets had at least one military officer on it.

In the end, Masoud notes, it is precisely Indonesia’s complexity that makes it an exciting laboratory for the Ash Institute’s work on democratic governance and innovation. And he suggests that the most important thing that Indonesia’s democracy needs is time: “Indonesia is a young democracy. It’s not fair to expect it to become perfect within one or two election cycles.”

The initial portion of this research project was funded by the Rajawali Foundation.