April 26, 2023
JAKARTA – “Indonesia’s democracy is among the world’s most important both to understand and to defend,” writes American political scientist Dan Slater.
“The world’s largest Muslim country,” he asserts in his latest piece in the Journal of Democracy, “has proven that democracy can emerge and endure in surprising ways and in a surprising place, with intriguing lessons for democratic emergence and endurance elsewhere.”
The article, titled “What Indonesian Democracy Can Teach the World”, may conjure a sense of optimism with its glass-half-full assessment of our political system at a time when the country – like a number of other democracies – is experiencing democratic backsliding and a resurgence of past authoritarian tendencies. But his judgment is also a testament to how difficult and painful the struggle for democracy has been for Indonesia and how stubbornly fragile it remains two decades after its revival.
The Jakarta Post, which turned 40 on Tuesday, can attest to such a sentiment, having reported on the rise, and periodic retreat, of the nation’s democracy from the heyday of Soeharto’s oligarchic regime to the meteoric rise of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
The Post, in its early decades, bore witness to and outlasted Soeharto’s repressive New Order regime, going on to cover five democratic elections, with the sixth one, to be held in February next year, just around the corner.
The paper has not always been optimistic. On Nov. 9, 1998, its editorial wondered aloud whether BJ Habibie’s government, “which is often referred to as the Soeharto regime without the old man inside – is capable of holding a fair election”. But if the past 20 years of democratic growing pains have taught us anything, it is that free and fair elections are one of the nation’s strongest democratic institutions and must be defended.
The Post’s election coverage seeks to contribute to that cause.
The paper has covered Indonesia’s democratic elections since 1999, when ballots were cast in the first free and fair election since 1955. The 1999 election led to the appointment of celebrated Nahdhatul Ulama (NU) cleric Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid as the fourth president by the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR). Gus Dur was replaced by Megawati Soekarnoputri in 2001.
In 2004, the country held its first direct presidential election, marking a new era of democracy for its millions of citizens. Since then, Indonesians have given their mandate to two presidents: Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a reformist military general, and Jokowi, who at the time of his election was a relative political outsider with little connection to traditional power brokers in the military or business world.
In all these elections, senior political analyst Dewi Fortuna Anwar said, the Post played an indispensable role in providing accurate and balanced reporting with strong analysis. This was especially important, she said, as the newspaper was responsible for informing some of the country’s most crucial demographics.
“There’s no denying that the content that The Jakarta Post provides may not appeal to the majority of the people. But to that, perhaps I would say: the politically aware, we need it. I need it. […] There are only very few media outlets out there providing similar intelligence,” she said in a recent interview.
“It’s through such intelligence that political thought can evolve, that intellectual change can take place within the political elites, within the economic elites.”
Taking a stance
For Eva Kusuma Sundari, a senior ASEAN parliamentarian and member of the chief executive board of the Partnership for Governance Reform (KEMITRAAN), the 2014 election was one of the most important in recent memory.
As a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Eva recalled the political leap taken by her party to nominate Jokowi.
“There was an internal revolution within the PDI-P, and externally with the people, stemming from the notion that it was not necessary to be from a political dynasty or the military to be a leader, that an ordinary guy could rise as long as the people demanded [it],” she said recently.
On July 4, 2014, the Post wrote an editorial titled “Endorsing Jokowi”, in a move that surprised in many quarters. It was the first time the Post had ever openly endorsed a presidential candidate.
Analysts and political observers said in hindsight that they believed the Post had stayed objective in its reporting regardless of its editorial stance, reliably covering the full story and holding its championed candidate accountable.
When Jokowi finished his first term with weak results on his promise to resolve the country’s past human rights abuses, an editorial on April 18, 2019, called for “greater efforts” from the incumbent. The call was followed a few months later by a report on the long list of outstanding human rights abuse cases, highlighting how much there was left to do.
“The media has a responsibility to educate, and how they choose to report the news serves as the tool for education. […] The choice to endorse a candidate reflected The Jakarta Post’s editorial stance, based on its values and research, but it never jeopardized the objectivity of its reporting,” said Titi Anggraini, director of the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem), an electoral watchdog.
Since the Post’s earliest criticisms of Indonesia’s electoral elitism, the country has made significant progress, but the work remains unfinished. Titi predicted the 2024 election would be the country’s most controversial yet and that media would have to play a bigger role in holding all the interests to account.
Firstly, there was talk of suspending the election altogether last year, with whispers about Jokowi planning to run for an unconstitutional third term.
“The people fighting for this are not random, powerless people. They are political elites, institutional elites and party higher-ups. This is an open attack on periodic elections,” Titi said. “Then there are also doubts about the independence and professionalism of the elections organizer before any election even takes place. This is unprecedented.”
That made the media’s role even more important, she noted.
“Sometimes what is needed is not breaking news. There needs to be clear political context and insightful analysis in journalistic pieces. May The Jakarta Post continue doing this work,” Dewi added.
The paper’s 40-year commitment to nurturing democracy and holding power to account remains at the core of its editorial principles going forward, as the future brings new elections, challenges and successes.
When SBY was reelected for the second time in 2009, an Oct. 20 editorial put it well: “We believe Indonesians elected a good man. But even the best of men (and women) would be afflicted by officious tendencies if left to rule unchecked.” (ahw)