October 30, 2023
JAKARTA – In a region that is witnessing democratic stagnation and regression, it is hoped that Indonesia may demonstrate progress as the country enters its election season for next year, making it an important role model for Southeast Asia, a conference heard recently.
Scholars and experts from several countries in the region, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, convened at the Indonesian International Islamic University (UIII) in Depok, West Java, from Thursday to Friday, where they discussed election results in the region and their impact on democracy and human rights.
Throughout the talk, analysts agreed that Southeast Asia is currently backsliding or, at the very least, stagnating, with regard to democracy as a result of domestic political occurrences around or during elections.
Indonesia, for example, has seen many indications of democratic regression leading up to the 2024 elections. The nation has increasingly become subject to a phenomenon called “presidentialization”, where incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has tended to govern without much outside interference, especially during his second term, according to Djayadi Hanan, UIII senior lecturer and executive director of the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI).
“Indonesia’s democratic breakdown possibly stems from its weak rule of law,” Djayadi said in the discussion on Thursday, “shown by the personalization of political parties, executive aggrandizement and the public’s low trust in the legislative bodies and political parties.”
He also cited the recent Constitutional Court ruling on the age requirements for presidential and vice presidential candidates, allowing people below 40 years old to run, provided they have prior experience as elected regional heads.
The ruling allowed Jokowi’s eldest son, Surakarta Mayor Gibran Rakabuming Raka, to be nominated as Gerindra Party patriarch Prabowo Subianto’s running mate. Many observers have slammed the ruling as a blatant attempt at establishing a political dynasty.
Scenes from neighbors
Indonesia’s neighbor, the Philippines, showed a similar pattern recently, as the country elected Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of the late former president Ferdinand Marcos, as president despite his father’s infamous dictatorship. Marcos Jr. also succeeded former president Rodrigo Duterte who led an autocratic regime.
While the world appeared shocked when Marcos Jr. was elected, Filipinos actually expected his victory in the 2022 election, said political science lecturer Marie Elize Mendoza from the University of the Philippines Diliman during the conference.
The Philippines, she said, was the “patient zero” of fake news campaigns. In a nation where 82 percent of its people are actively online, the government took advantage of social media to sway the voters. On the other hand, it also shut down media outlets that tried to report its wrongdoings.
“Even influencers, who would previously just focus on marketing and advertising commercial products, they were also eventually hired for political campaigning,” Mendoza said.
Since then, the country has become easily susceptible to disinformation on social media. Marie also showed how Marcos Jr. played with “authoritarian nostalgia” by painting an uplifting backstory about his father on YouTube videos.
Another Indonesian neighbor, Malaysia, is still struggling with political instability, in which the country has seen five different prime ministers in the last six years. Khoo Ying Hooi, lecturer at the University of Malaya in Malaysia, described democratization in the country as incredibly slow, “sometimes it moves forward, but sometimes backward.”
The country has had former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for prime minister since late 2022, but the fight for human rights, which is highly contentious and debatable, has seen relatively little progress.
“Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, for example, are still criminalized and it is seen as a Western value, even today,” Ying Hooi said. “There are contesting ideologies when it comes to human rights that we end up having to compromise on.”
Thailand also lost a similar battle in the legislature, with the election-winning Move Forward Party, which pushed hard for military reform, blocked from forming the next government. The party was eventually excluded from the ruling coalition and, hence, could not fight for its agenda of removing the military from politics.
The deciding hours
For Indonesia, next year’s election can be a way to halt the negative impact of political presidentialization and “rejuvenate the democracy,” according to Djayadi. It has taken the first step as parties in Jokowi’s coalition have realigned by moving to support different presidential candidates.
It is also hopeful to look at the voters, as they tend to be aware of Indonesia’s democratic performance, making them a reliable actor for change.
An LSI survey this year, which tracks Indonesians’ satisfaction with democracy, found a steep decline between 2020 and 2022, a first since 2012.
But the hopeful note might be still ring false, Djayadi said, since Jokowi’s recent attempts at creating a political dynasty prove that he will possibly continue to have his hand in government. The future of the country’s democracy, therefore, lies in the political configurations when the next president is elected.
“We also have to look at each candidate’s style of leadership,” Djayadi said, “which one is more prone to [cause a] democratic regression?”