Edward Aspinall: Civil Freedom in Indonesia is Deteriorating

Democracy in Indonesia is worsening. This condition began at the beginning of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration and further plummeted when Joko Widodo took office, said a political scientist from Australia National University, Edward Aspinall.

The degrading quality of Indonesian democracy was obvious in several events, ranging from the repression of the authorities against protesters, the ratification of the Criminal Code, the revision of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) Law, to the massive enactment of the Information and Electronic Transaction (ITE) Law that harm the nation’s democracy.

Nevertheless, people have carried out their efforts to defend democracy. “I am very confident that in general the Indonesian people actually support democracy,” Aspinall told Jaring.id on Friday, February 10, 2023.

The state of democracy in Indonesia

My observation is more or less the same as the majority of Indonesian political observers, that Indonesia experienced a remarkable breakthrough with the fall of the New Order regime in the late 90s. More or less, the progress continued in the field of democracy until the early period of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. After that, it stagnated. Approximately 8 years later, or at the same time as the rise of President Jokowi, democracy in Indonesia began to enter a state of regression.

Although the regression has not been too devastating, in the sense that until now many of the fundamental institutions of the democratic system are still strong, it [the regression] has happened in many ways, especially in some aspects of freedom of the people, freedom of expression, and freedom of association, which has been rather worrying lately.

Two pillars of democracy

When we talk about democracy, it essentially consists of two pillars. Firstly, leaders are elected by the people, not by a group of elites, not by party leaders, and not by high-ranking military officers, but by all citizens. Secondly, elections are conducted under the conditions of civil freedom, because if the freedom of civilians is restricted, then it will be a pseudo-democracy.

In my view, civil freedom started to look a bit backward and started to be undermined since about 8 to 10 years ago. In fact, some recent issues that have been our concerns  increasingly give signs of the deteriorating freedom of the people. Although we have yet to come to a conclusion, the signs prove that there have been attempts to undermine the electoral system. For example, intervention in political parties and intervention to the election organizers. Not only that, there is an intervention in law enforcement, so that law enforcement, security forces, or the police are being used to hinder the operation of opposition groups. This is more worrying.

If it happens, then the process of democratic decline in Indonesia will enter a new phase. I have been paying attention to the condition of democracy in Indonesia for five years, and I have concluded that democracy in Indonesia is starting to be threatened.

Civil freedom undermined

Since the issuance of the regulation in lieu of law on Civil Organization (Perppu Ormas), we can see how the government reacted to student demonstrations when the Omnibus Law was passed. Another example is the recent inclusion of the article on insulting the president in the Criminal Code, and there are many more examples [of civic rights and freedom being undermined], I think.

Although we can say that if we compare it with some countries that have had their democracies destroyed, such as Thailand or Myanmar, of course, the events in Indonesia are not as severe and not as brutal as those countries. The regression in Indonesia happened slowly, and gradually, but I think the process is quite clear.

The hope of saving democracy

Supported by the facts in the nation’s history, the current democracy was not built by chance. It was established based on sacrifices made by many people. Not only in Jakarta, when there was the 1998 May Movement but also in various regions in Indonesia where many people made their sacrifices and struggles. Therefore, I am very confident that in general, the Indonesian people support democracy.

Potential problems in the future

The main problems are structural. First, the widening gap between the very wealthy and oligarchic elite and the majority of the people. So, there is a structural problem

Then there is polarization. According to various studies, not only in Indonesia but in several countries, the process of democratic regression is often worsened by the polarization that occurs in society. So, in a polarized society, there are some people who abstractly and conceptually still support democracy as a good system. However, they are tolerant of anti-democratic actions if those actions are taken to harm people who are considered as their opponents.

It is no coincidence that democratic decline or regression is occurring where political polarization is growing. The phenomenon of Cebong and Kampret, in my opinion, should also be noted as a process of regression toward democracy. Some people will tolerate anti-democratic actions as long as they are directed at their political opponents. It becomes something complicated.

Hoaxes and democratic regression

Hoaxes are not the main factor. The main factor is the consolidation process at the elite level and the strengthening of both structural and ideological old patterns among the elite. That is the main factor. But if we look at polarization as a factor that has a role in the process of decline or regression of democracy, perhaps, at this point, hoaxes also play a role. This is because people often will believe hoaxes, or they do not take a critical stance against hoaxes if what they read and see online are bad stories about people they consider as political opponents or those from the opposite camp.

I think hoaxes play a role in making people accept the regression process of democracy itself. Hoaxes will delegitimize opposition groups against the government, for example. So, I think that’s how hoaxes contribute to the process of democratic regression.

Overseas Voters’ Turnout Shrink

Binti Rosidah is one of more than 1.6 million Indonesians living and working in Malaysia. She has been working as a domestic worker in Kuala

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