Democracy under threat


All of the political pundits have said it. Global indexes have given the argument even more validity. We have sensed it by merely reading the daily news, where country after country has fallen prey to what is commonly defined in academic circles as democratic backsliding.

Irawan Ronodipuro

IO – Yes, democracy is in danger. It started ten years ago in the aftermath of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. The rise of ugly populist politics in Europe and more recently in the United States, Putin’s dialing back on democracy in Russia, the illiberal rule of strongmen in the electoral democracies of Egypt and Turkey and a steep decline in political freedoms in the Asia region are warning signals that democracy is in serious retreat.

But the surprising surge in the appeal of far right-wing populist parties in European elections, Trump’s attacks on the American judiciary, Putin and el-Sisi’s pushing their opponents out of the upcoming elections in Russia and Egypt are, unfortunately, only part of the larger story.

If you are looking for the hard data, a good source is the 2017 Democracy Index, which has been published since 2006 by the Economist Intelligence Unit (an arm of the Economist Group). The latest index found in the overwhelming majority of cases that important pillars of freedom such as popular participation in elections, pluralism and civil liberties have either stagnated or have been undermined by the political classes. The latest index registered the worst performance in a decade: eighty-nine countries, more than half of the countries included in the index, took a turn for the worse as compared to the previous year’s assessment.

While almost half of the world’s population lives in what could reasonably be called a democracy, the reality is few of these democracies could be classified today as fully-fledged, healthy democratic regimes. Most are recognized as flawed democracies.

Here in Asia, the news is sobering: over the past year, Asian citizens experienced the biggest decline in freedom as compared to the other six regions covered by the Democracy Index. Hun Sen’s gaming of the Cambodian electoral process to keep himself in power, Philippine’s Duterte riding roughshod over civil liberties and human rights in his notorious war on drugs, and Xi Jingping’s repressive crackdown on civil liberties in China have signaled a worrisome trend in the rise of harsher illiberal and authoritarian rule.

Most disappointing, however, has been the failure of Indonesia’s ruling coalition and President Jokowi to uphold and protect our nation’s hard-won democracy.

The abhorrent democratic scorecard of the Jokowi administration is, in fact, reflected in the Economist’s Democracy Index: out of all the 167 countries surveyed, the largest decline in democratic freedoms took place in Indonesia, sliding from a ranking of forty-eighth in the world to sixty-eighth over a period of just one year.

As a personality, Jokowi’s easy-going Javanese ways may win him popularity contests, but when one examines the facts, from exerting his authority as president or through acts of commission, there is no denying Indonesia

be has suffered serious setbacks to its democracy since he first entered the presidential palace.

To wit, we have seen a return of the repugnant practice of executing prisoners on death row, a vicious little war on drugs that eerily follows in the steps of Duterte through extra-judicial police shootings of suspected drug dealers and users in the streets of Jakarta, and gross abuse of Indonesia’s blasphemy laws to punish critics of the president and his family.

More recently and most disturbing we have seen Jokowi’s two major coalition partners, PDI-P and Golkar, show their unabashed support for a pending bill in the House of Representatives that would radically change Indonesia’s criminal code. If the House endorses the bill, then it will land on Jokowi’s desk for his signing before it becomes law.

The current bill, which could be signed by Jokowi and become law within the coming weeks, would effectively restrict the rights of minority faiths and make it illegal to insult the president or religious leaders. And in a throwback to the nineteenth century, it would effectively govern a person’s sexual behavior: gay, lesbian and transgender rights would be eliminated, extramarital sex and even sex between unmarried couples would be criminalized.

Indeed, it seems we are going backwards, not forward. As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Soeharto, we must wonder where Indonesia is headed under Jokowi’s leadership. He is certainly not a democrat. It is clear now that his staying in power beyond 2019 would exact yet more and irreparable damage to Indonesia’s prestige as being the world’s third largest democracy, as well as further endanger our nation’s long-standing culture and traditions of tolerance, inclusivity and secularism.