- Indonesia: Twenty Years of Democracy (Elements in Politics and Society in Southeast Asia) by Jamie Davidson
For observers of Southeast Asia's politics, there is little doubt that Indonesia's electoral democracy has shown resilience at a time when democracy is retreating elsewhere in region. The country successfully conducted one of the world's largest free and fair elections in 2019 and President Joko Widodo, who ran on a more pluralist platform—at least compared to his rival—won. Yet, democracy is not only about elections, and the new government's policies have shown traces of an "authoritarian" legacy. How can we make sense of the complexity of Indonesia's democracy?
Jamie Davidson's Indonesia: Twenty Years of Democracy offers a comprehensive analysis and useful periodization of the country's democratic trajectory over the past two decades. Indonesia, considered by observers as one of the most democratically "consolidated" nations in the region—although Davidson himself is averse to using the term (p. 4)—has certainly made some gains since the fall of the authoritarian regime in 1998; for example, by the introduction of regional autonomy and direct elections. However, the relatively young democracy continues to face challenges, some of which pertain to the endurance of elements of authoritarianism, as well as systemic corruption. This book does a good job elucidating these key developments.
The author begins with three core arguments. First, he states that Indonesia's democracy looks strong in comparison to other countries', yet much weaker when viewed up close (p. 2). Persistent corruption, collective violence, and growing sectarianism and military influence in the government illustrate some of the shortfalls. Second, in spite of such deficits, democracy should still be the yardstick to gauge the country's performance. Davidson points out that the term "means different things to different people" and consequently draws a rather cautious conclusion that Indonesia's democracy is "an unfinished process replete with conflicts over power, resources, ideas and institutions" (p. 4). Third, Indonesia's current situation should not be evaluated using the framework of "change and continuities" vis-à-vis the New Order, because the past two decades were distinct enough to merit their own examination. Here, Davidson divides the post-Soeharto democratization into three periods: innovation; stagnation; and the current era of polarization.
The innovation period (1998–2004) was characterized by political reforms. Once the bedrock of the New Order regime, the army went back to the barracks, thereby relinquishing their notorious dual-function doctrine (dwifungsi), the Constitutional Court was established, and a big-bang decentralization was introduced to bolster good governance and relieve the government of financial burden (p. 10). Not emphasized in the book, however, is the fact that the latter's hasty implementation was also precipitated by the fear of secessionism, especially as the state dealt with conflicts in Maluku, Aceh and West Papua—the conflicts mentioned in the "contra innovation" section. On the economy, the country was forced to agree to the International Monetary Fund's conditionality measures (p. 14), such as efforts towards privatizing [End Page 475] state assets and protecting the markets from monopolies and predatory elites—some more successfully than others. Meanwhile, the society experienced its own dynamics with the rise of conservative Islam, primarily made possible by Soeharto's attempt at building a new support base in the early 1990s. When Islamist parties did not do well in the 1999 elections, Islamic conservatism expressed itself through militia activism and radicalism. Despite this, the Gus Dur administration made great strides by lifting the New Order ban on public displays of Chinese writings and recognizing Confucianism as an official religion (p. 22). Marginalized groups on the Outer Islands also experienced an "adat revival", stimulated by historical—at times, pre-Islamic—legacies and traditions.
In contrast, "fatigue and frustration" marked the stagnation period under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004–14), whose two terms greatly benefited from the commodity boom, but also witnessed political parties colluding "among themselves to write the rules of the game in their favour and to guard their access to...