IO – Earlier this year I wrote a column about the decline of liberalism. How serious a decline? According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, which publishes an annual index on democracy, last year was the worst performance of democracies in a decade. Eighty-nine countries—more than half of the countries included in the index—became more illiberal as compared to the previous year’s assessment.
Those who watch Indonesian politics and care to do their research about the state of our union should take a closer look at the sobering news about Indonesia’s democracy. According to the Economist’s Democracy Index, out of all the 167 countries surveyed, the largest decline in democratic freedoms took place in Indonesia, moving from a ranking of forty-eighth in the world to sixty-eighth over a period of just one year.
Last week I wrote again about the demise of democracy and the striking number of democracies coming under siege by elected authoritarians, including Indonesia. This is, in retrospect, a dramatic turn of events: under Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia was touted—and rightly so—as beacon for democracy, for democracies in general and as an example for the rest of the Islamic world in particular.
One of former president Yudhoyono’s legacies was his safeguarding Indonesia’s hard-earned democracy. That was then. But now it is time to talk about the present realities—with the presidential campaign season coming upon us, taking stock of what has gone wrong with our country’s democracy under the Jokowi administration is extremely timely. It should also be a major point of discussion and public debate as Indonesians ponder their choice for president in 2019.
Looking at the playbook of other elected authoritarian leaders, it is clear Jokowi and his men have been using similar tactics in a bid to maintain their grip on power. Below are some of the commonalities between Jokowi and other elected authoritarians we have seen over the past few years, explaining also Indonesia’s decline in the Democracy Index:
Intimidation. One serious issue we should be putting on our watch list of democratic backsliding in Indonesia is the intimidation of opponents. Last week I wrote about the case of Neno Warisman, an Indonesian opposition activist with the #2019ChangePresident campaign, and her being threatened with violence by pro-Jokowi supporters when she attempted to leave Batam island’s airport to attend a political rally.
A similar case involves the opposition Prosperous Justice Party senior politician Mardani Ali Sera when, in mid-July, unknown assailants threw a Molotov cocktail at his residence.
The fact neither Jokowi nor his ruling coalition partners bothered to comment about or condemn these politically motivated acts of intimidation says legions about Jokowi’s commitment to democracy. Dangerous precedents have now been set. The ruling coalition has said they are worried about ethnic- and religious-related violence in the run-up to next year’s election. We think the more relevant and looming danger is a continuation of pro-Jokowi elements attacking opposition leaders. After Jokowi publicly stating last week his supporters should be willing to ‘fight’ opponents, the risk of more attacks is even greater.
Blocking freedom of assembly. Authoritarian governments commonly restrict public assemblies of protest or show of support for opposition politicians. The Jokowi administration is, quite ominously, beginning to exhibit the same. In early August the Central Java police in Semarang stopped members of the Indonesian Trade Union Confederation, or KSPI, from continuing a march that started in the city of Surabaya and is scheduled to end in Jakarta to demonstrate their support for the presidential candidacy of Prabowo Subianto. Although Prabowo’s supporters went unimpeded upon their departure from Surabaya, questions have been raised about the reasons behind the Central Java security forces trying to halt the KSPI from finishing their march.
The question is, will similar attempts to infringe upon the opposition’s freedom of assembly take place over the coming months as campaigns swing into high gear?
Restricting politicians from running for office. Where intimidation tactics don’t suffice to displace or discourage the opposition, elected authoritarians in democratic countries are increasingly using their executive powers to undermine the spirit of free elections.
To his discredit, Jokowi has joined their ranks—in a recent presidential decree, he has single-handedly set back Indonesia’s electoral democracy by requiring regional heads of government to receive the permission of the president to resign from their offices in order to run for the presidency or vice-presidency.
Voters should be reminded that Jokowi was a governor of Jakarta before registering his presidential candidacy. He was a main beneficiary from the absence of the types of restrictions he has decreed. It remains to be seen how this will affect the 2019 presidential election, but it certainly sets a dangerous platform for ruling parties in the future to restrict the numbers of talented and popular opposition politicians from running in national elections.
Criminalizing opponents. For a democracy to function properly, voice must be given to critics. Politicians, the media and the average citizen should feel free to express their opinions about the government and its leaders. Yet elected authoritarians around the world are dampening dissent through democratic institutions, which has invariably led to self-censorship and the risk of imprisonment for those who dare speak their minds.
Jokowi and his coalition partners have precisely done the same. By controlling a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives, they managed to pass a new criminal code that effectively makes it illegal to insult the president.
What is most curious about all of these anti-democratic measures undertaken by the Jokowi administration is the lack of criticism in the mainstream print and electronic media. It is also vastly under-reported in the foreign press. Many journalists persist in portraying Jokowi as an earnest reformer while they demonize the opposition. Yet there is a public and undisputable record of Jokowi’s anti-democratic instincts and policies over the past four years. The question is, why?