Is Indonesia ‘one of the world’s greatest democracies’?

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard visited Indonesia on Tuesday. At a reception after  talks with President Yodhoyono she described Indonesia as “one of the world’s greatest democracies”.

What a ridiculous thing to say. Whatever you may think about Indonesia’s transformation since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, it is not in the first rank of democracies. It’s not even close.

Indonesia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. By Yudhoyono’s own admission, the courts are run by a “court mafia”. Justice goes to the highest bidder or the most powerful. The United Nations says Indonesia’s police force regularly engages in torture, extortion and abuse of detainees. The military has backed out of most of its Suharto-era business empire, but it has not been held to account for past extra-judicial killings, kidnappings and alleged crimes against humanity. Rights groups say it continues to torture and abuse civilians, mainly in the Malukus and Papua. Papua and West Papua provinces are a vast part of eastern Indonesia which the great democracy has sealed off from the outside world to prevent independent reporting of the alleged dispossession and abuse of the indigenous Melanesian people. 

A pragmatist could go on and on with reasons why Indonesia is not one of the world’s great democracies. Gillard is not a pragmatist or even a realist. She’s part of the “Indonesia lobby” which closes its eyes to the country’s many problems, equates democracy with stability and measures progress in terms of growth in bilateral trade.

For a more realistic perspective, one I share, take a look at Australian academic Damien Kingsbury’s article this week about Yudhoyono’s final term and potential presidential candidates for 2014. He warns that reform has stalled, Suharto-era goons still dominate the political elite, and democratisation – a work in progress, not a finished oil painting –  cannot be taken for granted.

There are eight likely candidates to replace Yudhoyono. Five of them are the product of the late president Suharto’s rule and if elected are likely to turn back Indonesia’s political clock…

As in the past, the outcome of presidential elections will be determined not by policy but by personality; being good at karaoke pulls more votes than a sound economic policy. Yudhoyono was unusual in that he combined a high level of charisma – and a reasonable singing voice – with pro-poor, pro-jobs economic policies and an ability to negotiate the minefield that is Indonesian politics. He even had a useful army background, albeit as leader of the reform faction.

But Yudhoyono’s current inability to press forward shows that both reform and indeed democratisation are not pre-determined outcomes. Indonesia went politically backwards under Yudhoyono’s predecessor, Megawati Sukarnoputri. Australia-Indonesia relations followed suit. It is far from guaranteed this won’t happen again.

Nothing is guaranteed in Indonesia, least of all democracy. Leaders like Gillard – and Barack Obama who is visiting next week – would do better to be honest about this country’s problems instead of trotting out patronising plattitudes. Such talk only gives democracy a bad name.

(Photo courtesy of MystifyMe via flickr)

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