Our elected authoritarians

Black B. Independent Observer

IO – The decline of liberal society started more than a decade ago. In places such as Russia and Venezuela, where citizens once enjoyed the liberties of electoral democracy, it was as if they suddenly awoke one day to the fact the proverbial rug had been swept from under their feet. Political purges, the curtailing of press freedoms, electoral fraud and corrupt judiciaries were just a few of the signposts that a new phenomenon was on the horizon: the emergence of elected authoritarians. 

Eventually, more and more ‹apprentice› autocrats were taking notes from the playbooks of Putin and Chavez to ensure their grip on power. In Europe, the number of authoritarian-leaning parties had surged, and by 2015 they were winning an average of 12 percent of the vote across 32 Western democracies. In Poland and Hungary, for example, the authoritarians had won control of their governments. They also gar nered significant gains in Austria, France, and even Germany. There no longer was any room to doubt the world was experiencing a democratic recession. 

In Indonesia, which ranks as the world›s third largest democracy after India and the United States, it once seemed we would buck the trend of backsliding. While more mature Western democracies were falling into the trap of illiberalism as a consequence of weak economic growth, a widening wealth gap and unprecedented waves of emigres crossing Europe›s borders, Indonesia had none of these problems. At least not yet. 

In her book on the plight of modern democracies, ‹Fascism: A Warning›, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright writes that «Mussolini observed that in seeking to accumulate power, it is wise to do so in the manner of plucking a chicken- -feather by feather–so each squawk is heard apart from every other and the whole process is kept as muted as possible.» 

More than most of his contemporaries, Mussolini understood how power could be taken–but rather than using brute force, he advised a more nuanced approach–hence his analogy of plucking the chicken. 

Indonesia ‹s moment of entering a democratic recession, which seemed abrupt and reached world headlines over the past few weeks, is now threatening the country›s political stability. The recent student demonstrations and clashes with the police as tens of thousands of protestors weathered a storm of water cannons, water bullets and tear gas, have temporarily subsided, but they will return in the coming weeks and continue unless the president and House of Representatives meet the student›s demands of withdrawing legislation that will critically damage Indonesia›s democracy. 

In reality, few things are as sudden as they seem. The demonstrations were a shock to the international community, but in fact the democratic backsliding had started in earnest over a year ago. Restrictions on the freedom of assembly and free speech were most evident during last year›s presidential campaign. Civil groups were frequently blocked from holding rallies, prominent critics were arrested and imprisoned, the media was intimidated and in some cases threatened by the government over unfavorable reporting, and Muslim groups in favor of oppposition candidates were unfairly demonized. 

In other words, the chicken was already being plucked, only most people did not notice or care. Yet, at some point, when there are few feathers left to pluck and the chicken stands bare, it becomes impossible to hide the truth. This is exactly what happened when the House of Representatives passed the revised law on the Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK, effectively serving it a death blow. It is also what happened when legislators were getting ready to pass into law a draconian criminal code that would have left Indonesia’s civil liberties in tatters. 

Unless the president bows to student demands to issue a presidential decree to give the KPK back its powers, Indonesia could easily enter a political crisis and period of civil unrest that harks back to 1998. 

Yet it might become even worse. Party leaders are now discussing the possibility of revising the constitution and reverting to indirect presidential elections, hence completing the entire sordid exercise of bringing Indonesia back to New Order politics. 

Such deliberations, especially in the midst of a growing protest movement, is playing with fire. It shows that the elite has no intention of reversing its drive to unwind Indonesia›s hard-earned democracy. And if they dare try to take away the electorate›s right to choose their president, the crisis will only worsen. 

Is there a best case scenario? Only if the president and the legislature realize they need to retreat. But this does not seem likely, at least for the moment. Rather than trying to find a viable compromise, party bosses and politicians are insinuating that some dark hidden forces are behind the protestors. This is a silly argument: there are no puppeteers manipulating the situation. The only thing behind the protestors is, very simply, the Indonesian people.