Indonesia's Upcoming Presidential Elections and Lessons from Democratization

Interview with Karl Jackson
July 1, 2014

Measures of equality and meaningful political participation have grown significantly in Indonesia as the country approaches its third presidential election this July. Although examples of poor governance and corruption still exist, few would have predicted the relative success of this democratic transition, particularly after over 30 years of autocratic rule. NBR spoke with Karl Jackson, Director of the Southeast Asia Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, to assess the impact of religion and the civil-military relationship on Indonesian democracy. Dr. Jackson also discussed the upcoming elections and Indonesia’s future role in international relations.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton once declared, “If you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity, and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia.”[1] How has Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, achieved a lasting transition to democracy?

Indonesian Islam has always been different. It has always been a tolerant form of Islam. Over the last 30 or 40 years, there has been a turn toward greater orthodoxy in the observance of Islam by private citizens. However, interestingly enough, as Islamic observance has become slightly stricter, the influence of Islamic political parties has actually decreased substantially compared with the 1950s. Other than this past election, when they saw a little bump in support, Islamic parties are not nearly the political force that they used to be. Given the combination of tolerance and a situation where the Islamic parties are not large and actually contending for power, it is easy to see why the Muslim population of Indonesia, which is 90% of the country’s population, votes for secular parties. Does that make Indonesia a healthy, consolidated democracy? I’m not sure what that label means. Consolidated democracies are consolidated until they become unconsolidated. The same language that is being used now to describe Indonesian democracy was used at the beginning of the century to describe Thai democracy, and yet no one would describe Thai democracy today as consolidated. There are substantial weaknesses in Indonesian democracy concerning how candidates are selected; the role of money in politics, which has become quite extraordinary; and the role of the judiciary, which is notoriously corrupt. Furthermore, whenever a country has a military establishment that once played the role of guardian of the nation, the question of whether the military might under certain circumstances, but not the present circumstances, come back into politics must be considered. That being said, from my knowledge of the Indonesian military, it has no intention at this point in time of re-entering politics. That speaks well of the Indonesian military, which is in the process of becoming a more professional force.

Despite competitive elections and a voter turnout rate of over 70%, Indonesia is still classified as a “partly free” country by Freedom House. What steps should the next administration take to secure Indonesia’s political freedom?

I assume that the rating by Freedom House has to do with the intolerance being demonstrated toward Islamic minority sects, like the Ahmadiyya. The best thing the Indonesian government could do would be to use the force of the law against anyone who burns churches or who kills people in cold blood on the streets over religion. There is, and always has been, a willingness on the part of Indonesians to contemplate using violence over either insults to religion or over sectarian differences. But that is what governments and police are for—to restrain the antisocial tendencies of certain groups. Although 90% of the population is Islamic, 90% do not endorse that kind of violence. It is a tiny minority.

During the Asian financial crisis, Indonesia’s military, which had acted as the autocracy’s backbone and maintained a record of effectively subduing internal separatist uprisings, did not attempt to seize political power when the government was at its weakest, as the military did successfully during the coup of 1965. Why have the military elites in Indonesia chosen to peacefully concede political power?

The reality is that Suharto came out of the military, but within about five years he marginalized the military and largely pushed it into a professional role of maintaining order within the archipelago. He also reduced the budget and the size of the force.

I think the primary reason the military has stayed out of politics is because by doing so it has become the most respected institution in Indonesia, according to public opinion polls. The other thing about the Indonesian military that is important to understand is that it is always politically disunified. It took the coup of 1965, where six Indonesian generals were killed in one night, to unify the force. What the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) appears to have done in 1965 to precipitate the coup can only be described as boneheaded—in the same category with Napoleon invading Russia. However, the coup did not result in a military dictatorship. Suharto very quickly became his own force, and he satisfied a constituency that was outside of, rather than within, the military. That is why the defense budget and the size of the force went down.

I also think the military has remained on the sidelines because of the fact that an entire generation of Indonesian military officers now exists that is more professional. One problem is that for more than ten years Indonesia was cut off from involvement in IMET (International Military Education and Training) here in the United States. And that is most unfortunate because the professionalization of the Indonesian officer corps had a lot to do with training with the Australians, the Americans, and the Europeans. Such training now takes place again, but on a small scale. If I had my druthers, the United States would definitely increase Indonesia’s involvement in IMET to try to ensure that as many Indonesian officers as possible are exposed to the American doctrine of civil-military relations, which unequivocally opposes military involvement in civilian affairs.

Do you think the civil-military relationship could change with a Joko Widodo presidency?

I don’t think anyone knows what Joko Widodo will do if he is elected president, but I don’t see the military becoming either more or less prominent as a result of his presidency. The major problem the Indonesian military has is that it is still dependent on irregular sources of income for its own budget. Extraordinarily, it used to be a rule of thumb that only 60% of the budget expenditures in the Indonesian armed forces were covered by the government of Indonesia. This is not the way to ensure that the military adopts a strict set of ethical guidelines. The Indonesian army commanders, especially the territorial commanders, are in a tough spot because they must get money out of the business community in order to provision their troops. What is odd is that each and every one of the country’s democratic governments since 1999 has refused to deal with this problem. Some of them have made noise about getting everything on budget, but this has yet to happen, which is a real problem.

What message are the Indonesian voters sending with the recent success of Joko Widodo and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) in the parliamentary elections?

Indonesian voters are definitely sending a mixed message because the PDI-P did not do as well as expected. Jokowi’s coattails were not nearly as long as everyone expected. I think the Indonesian electorate was hedging its bets until it saw who the presidential candidates were. Political parties are not terribly important in Indonesia; they go up and down. The PDI-P is really the successor to the Indonesian Nationalist Party from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and it has gone up and down depending on what the voters thought of the performance of the party in power. The big loser in the recent parliamentary election was the incumbent president’s party. Political parties in Indonesia are personal vehicles, and they reflect the strength or weakness of the electorate’s perception of that individual. No one knows what Jokowi would be like as president other than that during his short time in the governorship of Jakarta he managed to rule by consensus and get a few things done. I think the Indonesian electorate is impatient for someone who will get things done.

In March, Indonesian defense officials criticized China’s “nine-dash line” for encroaching on Indonesia’s maritime sovereignty. Given this uncharacteristic announcement, as well as plans for military exercises within the disputed area this year, should we expect Indonesia to adopt a more aggressive defense posture in the future? If so, how will this affect the health of the country’s democracy?

I don’t think it will have any bearing on the health of democracy in Indonesia if Indonesia’s response to Chinese military assertiveness is to become more aggressive in return. The Indonesians basically don’t have the wherewithal to compete with China to defend the exclusive economic zone of Indonesia. So, Jakarta instead will try to use ASEAN as a vehicle. If that can’t be done because of the fact that the Cambodian and Lao governments often act like wholly owned subsidiaries of the People’s Republic of China and ASEAN’s process requires unanimity, I think Indonesia will over time be driven into some kind of collaboration with the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam to try to resist or to limit China’s incursion.

However, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which China doesn’t begin to predominate over those regional powers with regard to the South China Sea. The only one that China would not take on, at least frontally, is the U.S. Navy, to the extent that it operates in the South China Sea. I also don’t think China will interfere with international navigation, but what it will want to do is get all of the fish and the limited petroleum resources. China believes that there are huge amounts of petroleum and natural gas in the region, although members of the U.S. Geological Survey tell me this is not so.

How do you see Indonesia’s role in ASEAN changing after the presidential election?

Indonesia, because it is the country in ASEAN with the biggest GDP, biggest population, and largest land mass, will continue to be the primus inter pares of the ASEAN countries. The real question is not so much what Indonesia’s role will be. It will continue to play a leadership role. The real question is how important will ASEAN be going forward, given the divisions and the fact that its greatest problem in some ways is the South China Sea issue. ASEAN, as an organization, is de facto paralyzed. The better question may be what role will Indonesia play outside ASEAN, because ASEAN may no longer be a workable vehicle, which is too bad.

If Indonesia is forced by the nature of ASEAN to operate more independently, what will this look like? Is a nonexistent ASEAN better than a dysfunctional ASEAN for the United States?

Would it be better to have no ASEAN? From an American point of view, certainly not. ASEAN is a convenient vehicle for some things, such as talking to the entire Southeast Asia region or when you want to have a voice in the context of the ASEAN Regional Forum or the East Asia Summit. So it is a convenient forum, but not a very functional one for getting something done—for instance, with regard to the South China Sea issue. Indonesia may well take a more forthright position as a result of China becoming more and more assertive, but it would probably end up doing so as Indonesia, not as ASEAN. Indonesia has never been a total prisoner to ASEAN foreign policy anyway. Jakarta has always had its own independent initiatives based on national interests rather than on ASEAN identity. This approach will simply be more accentuated with time, unless and until ASEAN becomes more effective.

What lesson should U.S. policymakers glean from Indonesia’s democratization?

When democratization was taking place during 1998–2004, on any given day you would have said that the process is not going to succeed—that there are just too many things going wrong, too much chaos, not enough order in the streets, and no one seems to know how to make the system work. Yet the Indonesians managed to bumble through and establish a working democracy. Is it a perfect democracy? Absolutely not, but no democracy is perfect. The most important thing that stands out to me is the role that the Indonesian elite has played in determining the rules of the game—moving toward a directly elected presidency and devising rules requiring that in order for a party to have a presidential candidate it must have a certain minimum amount of the popular vote or constituencies in parliament. All of these are elite decisions. Indonesian leaders have done some pretty good political engineering. They could have managed to get it wrong, as they did in the 1950s when it was very much the outer islands versus Java. Instead, the elite built in rules, making it impossible for the same scenario to come about that led directly to a civil war from 1958 to 1961, which involved hundreds of thousands of rebels and quite thoroughly destroyed Indonesia’s economy.

I think U.S. policy, to the extent that it played a role in Indonesia’s democratization, played a positive one. Since around 1965, it has been drummed into the head of every single State Department official who works on Indonesia that Indonesia is different and you do not push the country around. And every once in a while the Indonesians have a way of reminding the United States of this. My favorite example was when President Suharto came to the United States on a working visit during the Reagan administration. President Reagan did not have time to have lunch with President Suharto, and Secretary of State George Shultz invited President Suharto to be his guest at lunch instead. Suharto turned him down. He said no, I’m a president. I’m not a foreign minister. Always keep a low profile in Indonesia, because if you raise your profile too much and are seen as telling the Indonesians what to do, you will very quickly get severe pushback. Overall, U.S. policy did well in that time period.


[1] Andreas Harsono, “No Model for Muslim Democracy,” New York Times, May 21, 2012.

This interview was conducted by Brice Turner, a former Intern for the Political and Security Affairs group at NBR.