Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Legitimacy Crises and Reform in Indonesian Democracy

A recent article on a handful of semi- and consolidated-democracies in Southeast Asia caught my attention. The article's author, Lin Neumann, argues that instability, gridlock and power-hungry leaders, are harming the political systems in Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia and creating a widespread legitimacy crisis. Given the protests and unrest in Thailand and Cambodia and the one-party rule in Malaysia, it's no surprise Neumann chose to talk about these three countries. What is surprising is that Neumann lumped Indonesia, a seemingly stable and increasingly prosperous country, with Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia.

What's his justification? Neumann's beef is that Jakarta Governor Joko Widowo, or Jokowi as he's known locally, is by far the most popular politician in Indonesia, and with presidential elections right around the corner, it would seem that he would have the inside track to be SBY's heir to the leadership mantle. Alas, that's not necessarily the case. Elders in the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), threatened by Jokowi's rise, could block his road to political advancement.
Here is the money paragraph:
Jokowi is a true outsider and he now enjoys a 30-point lead in several opinion polls over his closest rival for July's election. But his position as a candidate is dependent on the most opaque process possible--former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the chairman of the party to which Jokowi belongs, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), has the sole power to determine the party's candidate. Should she decide to run for president for a fourth time (she lost in direct elections in 2004 and 2009 and settled for No. 2 in 1999), she would deny the popular will with no recourse for the public unless Jokowi broke ranks with the PDI-P, which is considered highly unlikely.
So what does this mean? All of this could very well put a dent in the armor of Indonesia's democratic political system. According to Neumann, "For many Indonesians, a presidential election without Jokowi could also be seen as illegitimate, just another exercise by the elite to reshuffle the deck chairs out of fear that a genuine reformer might upset cozy deals and bring a commitment to greater transparency into the opaque world of Indonesian governance."

What Neumann is talking about here, broadly speaking, is the notion of a deficit in democracy. This is a common theme in studies of democratic political systems, both mature and young systems. Here in the United States there is considerable talk about how big money--individual and corporate donors--influences and distorts electoral outcomes. Moreover, in unstable democracies, with weak and fragile institutions, we often see leaders pack legislatures and judicial branches with followers and sycophants. There is also the tendency for democratic leaders to use media outlets as their own personal political instrument. It's also not uncommon for senior political elites, as Neumann points out, to block the rise of upstart politicians, forcing them to wait their turn or simply shutting them out altogether from political ascension. I could go on, as the democracy deficit literature is quite voluminous.

It's tempting to suggest that Indonesia political parties ought to decentralize if not democratize the selection of candidates who will run in legislative and presidential elections. That would be a wonderful step. The rub, of course, is that those changes in party decisions must be made at the top, by the very leaders who are currently in a position to subvert democratic processes. As a result, instead, we have to think about altering the incentive structure of party leaders, so that they will find it in their interest to enact intra-party reforms. The answers aren't easy, and I don't have good ones right now. At this point, my hope is that this blog post and Neumann's article begin to spark a vigorous debate on widening democracy within Indonesia's prominent institutions.

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