After Philippines, Indonesia too is ripe for return to authoritarianism

The writer says after 24 years of experimenting, Indonesia’s democracy is still largely a work in progress.

Endy Bayuni

Endy Bayuni

The Jakarta Post


The youngest son of former Indonesian president Soeharto, Hutomo “Tommy” Mandala Putra (center), attends the opening of the Berkarya Party national meeting in Surakarta, Central Java on March 10, 2018, where he was voted chairman. Unlike the Philippines’ Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., who is set to follow in his dictator father’s footsteps in becoming president, Tommy has not been as successful in restoring the Soeharto clan image to the glory days of the New Order era. (Reuters/Antara/Mohammad Ayudha)

May 11, 2022

JAKARTA – The overwhelming victory for Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. in this week’s presidential election in the Philippines signals voters’ growing disillusionment with liberal democracy and a penchant for a strong ruler. We saw this happen in Thailand when it reverted to military rule in 2014, ending its democratic experiment.

This leaves Indonesia as just about the only Southeast Asian nation that is still trying to build the nation along democratic lines with the guarantees of various freedoms that make up a liberal democracy. But unless we reverse the democratic regression seen in recent years, Indonesia too could soon follow in the footsteps of the Philippines and Thailand and abandon its democratic project.

While it is too early to judge how Marcos Jr. will govern, he symbolizes the figure of a strong leader, taking after his late father Ferdinand Marcos Sr., the dictator who ruled the Philippines until deposed by people’s power in 1986. He will also surely take a cue from voters who shunned outgoing vice president Leni Robredo, a human-rights lawyer by training, who cut the figure of a leader promoting liberal democracy.

The Philippines’ penchant for a strong ruler was evident in 2016, with Rodrigo Duterte winning the presidential election. He has remained a popular figure throughout his presidency in spite of many flaws, including sexist comments, allegations of sexual abuse and human-rights violations, as well as a violent crackdown on drugs that has left tens of thousands of Filipinos dead.

Had it not been for the Philippines’ constitution, which limits the president to one six-year term (enacted immediately after Marcos Sr.’s departure from office), Duterte would surely have won the election this year. Instead, his daughter Sara Duterte appears set to win the vice-presidential election to govern side-by-side with Marcos Jr. Duterte no doubt paved the way for the return of the Marcos’ dynasty to the national political stage.

It may seem an irony that leaders like Duterte, and now Marcos Jr., won their presidential elections through the democratic process. Both results in 2016 and now in 2022 indicate that the majority of Filipinos are tired of the constant failures of liberal democracy, with which the Philippines has been experimenting since after Marcos Sr., in delivering the goods. In their eyes, the 36-year democratic project in the Philippines is an abject failure.

There have been allegations of vote-rigging, vote-buying and a massive disinformation campaign, but the overwhelming vote for Marcos Jr. undeniably says that this is what the majority of Filipinos want. It is vox populi though not necessarily vox Dei.

It is almost the same story of dynasty politics at play in Thailand, the difference being that the military seized power in 2014 with popular backing to put an end to the reign of the Thaksin family dynasty. Thaksin Shinawatra served as prime minister in 2001 to 2006, followed by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, from 2011 to 2014. Both brother and sister were popular but polarizing figures who had little regard for freedom and democracy. Now the Thai military, never a supporter of democracy, is running the country again.

Indonesia joined the Southeast Asia democratic league in 1998, joining the Philippines and Thailand, after it toppled Soeharto, who had ruled for over three decades, with military backing, also by means of the people’s power. Indonesia subsequently learned a lot from the experiences of these two neighboring countries when it began a massive political reform to build its own democracy post-Soeharto, from reforming the constitution to building free media institutions.

Can Indonesia hold the fort now to give hope and inspiration to its Southeast Asian neighbors that democracy, with the entire freedom package, remains the best form of government, and one that can deliver the goods? Or will it also abandon democracy and revert to authoritarianism?

We should take nothing for granted. Just as we learned from the success of the Philippines and Thailand in putting together our democratic institutions, we can learn from their failure and their abandonment of democracy.

After 24 years of experimenting, Indonesia’s democracy is still largely a work in progress. There have been some achievements, but some trends in the last decade or so indicate setbacks that raise questions about where our democracy is heading. The increasing polarization of society, the rise of identity politics, the return of corruption on a massive scale and the erosion of some of our freedoms should sound the alarm.

Dynasty politics may be stronger in the Philippines than in Indonesia; however, Indonesian family dynasties still work with powerful oligarchs in ruling the nation. The collusion between the political elites and the moneyed people can be just as devastating as political dynasties to our democracy.

For now, we do not have to worry about a military return to power, but the Thai experience tells us we should not easily be dismissive.

We can take heart that voters in the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections shunned Prabowo Subianto, a former Army general who campaigned on the platform of a strong leader, both times in favor of former furniture-exporter Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Voters also shunned Hutomo Mandala Putra, Soeharto’s youngest son, who has been trying to enter politics by setting up his own political party.

The popular meme of Soeharto with the caption Piye kabare, enak jamanku to? (“How you’re doing, my era was better, no?”), which surfaces from time to time, particularly during crisis times, indicates that there are people who long for a return of a strong authoritarian leader and that there are ambitious people who will readily put themselves forward as that person.

As in the Philippines and Thailand, the return to authoritarianism in Indonesia would likely be ushered in through the democratic election processes. We should not let that happen.

We should continue to nurture people’s faith in democracy by making sure that democracy can and will deliver the dividends. Failing that, more and more people are willing to consider the alternative forms of government, including the return of the military rule or a strong authoritarian ruler, or even a combination of the two, just as in Soeharto’s time.

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