Muslim Wire

Indonesia — a model Muslim democracy

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 22, 2009

N. Janardhan

Even as the controversies surrounding the presidential elections in Iran and Afghanistan refuse to subside, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was sworn in for a second five-year term as president of Indonesia this week. The relative ease with which he assumed office again not only strengthens Indonesia’s democratic experiment, but lends an air of optimism for the future of participatory governments in the Islamic world.

The start of Yudhoyono’s second innings is the product of a complex political process that required parliamentary election in April and presidential poll in July, which was only the second in its history. It involved 176 million voters in nearly half a million polling stations, making it the largest Muslim country on the path to becoming the third largest democracy in the world.

The president, popularly known as SBY, overcame challenges from Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president and daughter of independence hero Sukarno, and outgoing Vice President Jusuf Kalla. In fact, both losing candidates later alleged voting irregularities and demanded that the results be annulled. The Constitutional Court, however, endorsed SBY’s victory in August.

While these events form the subtext, the meat of the matter lies in the largely peaceful growth of Indonesia’s nascent democracy.

With a multicultural population of 235 million — 85 percent of them Muslim — Indonesia’s democratic transformation began in the aftermath of the 1998 Asian economic crisis, which was also a period that threw up the possibility of the country disintegrating and becoming a failed state. However, defying all odds and building on the tradition of more than three decades of “half-democracy”, as well as ushering in an era of reforms, the multilayered elections in 1999, 2004 and 2009 have not only modernized its political system, but bailed out the country from economic and social collapse too. With over 500 direct local elections being held since 2005 — leading to the World Bank recognizing Indonesia as “the election capital of the world” — the state has become stronger and the people more united, which have also had economic spin-offs. Beyond this quantitative measure, Indonesia has also ensured that its democracy continuously improves qualitatively because “elections alone do not make a true democracy”.

While elections have enhanced people’s political participation, a free media, vibrant civil society, system checks and balances, economic reform, protection of human rights, as well as military and judicial reform have held its young democracy in good stead.

Decentralization and anti-graft measures have been key components of government and administrative reforms. These — combined with the practice of consultation and dialogue as a means of evolving consensus right from the national to grassroots levels — have made Indonesia one of the healthiest democracies in Southeast Asia.

This was made possible, in part, by providing ample space for political parties to represent the interests of a population that is diverse in the religious, cultural, ethnic and linguistic realms. The evidence of transformation from a rule centered around one person and office to a proliferation of political leaders, groups and parties lies in more than a hundred parties vying for power in the 1999 election. Though this number dropped to about 40 this year and is still considered too many, it has not compromised on the varied interests of Indonesians.

Another factor that has cushioned the transition is the recent amendment of the post-colonial constitution of 1945, which encouraged the executive to monopolize power despite elections every five years and allowed only indirect election for the posts of president, as well as the members of Parliament and regional representatives, who were nominated by the political parties and executive respectively.

Dispensing these practices, the new constitution set voting age at 17 years, thus giving the large section of the country’s youth a political voice, lay the ground rules for direct election to the top political offices in the country, brought the powers of the legislature on par with the executive, diluted the power of the military and made the judiciary independent of executive influence. More important, the parliamentary election in April exposed the myth of religion overriding other considerations during elections in the Muslim world. All Islamic parties combined, which won nearly 40 percent of the vote in 2004, managed just over 20 percent this time.

It has been observed that even though more and more Indonesians, in particular women, have become more religious, it has not reflected in their voting behavior. Clean governance and corruption-free politics have become more important benchmarks while choosing candidates rather than religious affinity. Another progressive example is in the realm of women’s empowerment. Apart from having had a woman president between 1999 and 2004, a record 102 of the 550 seats for the House of Representatives, translating into 18 percent, was won by women in the recent parliamentary election — the previous best being 65 women members during the 1987-1992 period.

Advertising its success as a good democratic model and building bridges of international cooperation, Indonesia also launched the Bali Democracy Forum in December 2008. The annual event is aimed at providing a platform for Asian governments to work together and cooperate in the field of democracy and political development. Simultaneously, the Institute of Peace and Democracy was set up to help realize this agenda, as well as build networks that would be useful for Asia to share experiences, better design and modernize its political institutions.

It is true that all these do not make democracy in the world’s largest archipelagic state — with only 6,000 of about 17,000 islands inhabited — perfect. Though the political transition has been fairly smooth, economic and social challenges continue to hold the key to make or break the gains achieved over the last decade. But, there is no denying that it serves as a viable model for those on the threshold of political change not only in Asia, but all over the world.

— Dr. N. Janardhan is a UAE-based political analyst and can be contacted at


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