Researcher: Quality of Indonesia's Democracy Keeps Declining

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  • University students take part in a protest outside the Indonesian Parliament building in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 24, 2019. Tens of thousands of students gathered in cities nationwide over issues that included a new criminal code that penalises adultery and revised laws on corruption. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

    University students take part in a protest outside the Indonesian Parliament building in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 24, 2019. Tens of thousands of students gathered in cities nationwide over issues that included a new criminal code that penalises adultery and revised laws on corruption. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

    TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - The wave of student protests last September spurred adrenaline rush in Edward Aspinall. The Australian ‘Indonesianist’ who started his career in the 90s researching the Indonesian student movement did not see such a massive movement coming just months after the general elections.

    Aspinall, 51, said there were common forces that drove the student movement in Indonesia throughout the history: freedom of expression and corruption eradication. The lecturer with the Australian National University, Canberra, said that there were times where these aspirations were channeled through leaders and the people’s representatives.

    However, identity politics that has taken root since the 2014 presidential elections and the ongoing practice of money politics by legislative candidates have clogged up the channel. The government and the House of Representatives (DPR) even passed the revised anti-corruption law that he deemed would undermine the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and also revised the Criminal Code (KUHP) and several other laws. “There is a lack of synchrony between what is considered important by the public and what really happens in the formal political arena,” Aspinall told Tempo’s Aisha Shaidra via an overseas telephone call on Friday, October 11.

    The discord between the political elites and the public was manifested in, among others, public dissension between Arteria Dahlan, a DPR member from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), and Emil Salim, an economics professor from the University of Indonesia. Arteria flew into a temper when Emil Salim voiced his opinion based on a book about legislative members and money politics titled Democracy for Sale by Aspinall and his Dutch co-author, Ward Berenschot.

    From his newest research, Aspinall found that the decline in the quality of democracy is not happening in Indonesia only. The same trend is taking place in a number of countries that underwent the third wave of democratization, that is, a transition to democratic from monarchy or dictatorship in the 70s. “In the past, it was military groups that subverted democracy but now sabotage comes precisely from democratically-elected leaders, like in Hungary, Poland and the Philippines,” said Aspinall, who last week was named the world’s top researcher in Asian Studies by the Research magazine.

    What phenomenon did you observe in the 2019 student demonstration?

    The student demonstrations and the uproar demanding the repeal of the anti-corruption law as well as the delayed endorsement of the revised KUHP and other revised laws are odd.

    The wave of the public demonstrations, which in this case is represented by students, broke out just a few months after the general elections. This is ironic. The legitimacy of the people should be strong after the elections. The problems relating to the interests of the people that can potentially create this sort of unrest should have been discussed through the electoral channel. But they were never touched upon. That’s what happened. There seems to be a lack of synchrony between what is considered important by some of the people and what is actually happening in the formal arena of the political representation in Indonesia. Students want the eradication of corruption and freedom of expression.

    The government and DPR did not accommodate them?

    The student movement was the subject when I first conducted my research in Indonesia in the 90s. It was a pioneer opposition movement against the New Order regime. That time, the government provided a very limited channel for people to express their aspirations. So, it made sense that since 1970s (the January 15, 1974 incident) students have become the most vocal and confrontational opposition against the Indonesian government. If democratic consolidation goes well, the student movement will not be necessary. The reemergence of massive student protests after 20 years of reformasi shows that there are problems in the representation and reform systems in Indonesia.

    What is the cause?

    On the one hand, there was widespread use of identity politics throughout the presidential election as seen in the Islamist coalition behind Prabowo Subianto and the pluralist coalition behind President Joko Widodo. Perhaps it is too simplistic to call it Islamist versus pluralist but more or less that is the case. With identity politics becoming the main factor, other issues such as cleaning up corruption, political institutions, etc. received less attention. On the other hand, there is patronage politics in the legislative elections.

    What does it look like in a concrete form?

    The term often used in Indonesia is money politics. In political science, this term refers to a practice of giving out aid or material to influence political choices. The most vulgar form in Indonesia is a ‘dawn attack’ where legislative candidates distribute money early in the morning of the election day. Other forms are disguised under building houses of worship or infrastructure around the election time. Logically, money politics provide a fertile ground for corruption. When identity and patronage politics dominate, there is no more room left for other issues demanded by the students, that is, corruption eradication and freedom of expression.

    Is the magnitude of the student demonstrations an indicator of the dwindling public confidence in the government?

    The problem lies in the representation system. When identity and patronage politics became deeply ingrained, Indonesia’s democratic system became unresponsive to certain issues. For example, when people in a given village want something, they can lobby with the DPR or the Regional Legislative Council (DPRD) candidates during the election period. However, there is no place to accommodate the demand for corruption eradication, a classic demand since the reformasi era. That is what the students voiced in the recent protests. In a good democratic system, huge demonstrations are rare because public aspirations are represented via the legislative institution.

    So, could mass demonstrations be interpreted as something positive or negative?

    The reemergence of the student movement could be a sign of hope, a sign that a reform process could be revived. Indonesia can improve the quality of democracy. The demonstrations occurred so suddenly, beyond anyone’s guess. I, who have long researched the history of Indonesia’s student movement, did not expect the movement to return so quickly. This is the force that must be calculated in Indonesia’s political arena so as to be free from the suffocating trap of polarization.

    The student movement and the public’s participation on social media were also monstrous.

    How do you see the government’s stance?

    We cannot deny that social media helped spread aspirations or calls to move rapidly. Its influence is everywhere across the globe. In Indonesia, the government has been generally repressive against social media reactions by taking legal actions against those who criticized it. That is the sign of Indonesia’s increasingly declining democracy.

    Do you think that the 2019 student movement can be likened to the 1998 movement?

    I see similarities, both in terms of demand and the movement pattern. There is a continuum. Some students even said that they wanted to steer the reform process to the right path. This is very similar to the previous movement. The movement in the 70s called on the New Order to return to its original identity and to rid itself of corruption. There is a very strong tradition of mobilizing the masses.

    Which issue is more dominant, corruption eradication or freedom of expression?

    It was the KPK law – not the revised KUHP – that triggered the recent movement. However, freedom to express was also a strong factor. The demand for freedom of expression has always been there in the past 50 years. That is part of Indonesia’s ‘street parliament’ tradition.

    Read the full interview in Tempo English Magazine