Friday, December 12, 2008

Travails of Indonesian Democracy

Since the ending of President Suharto’s New Order regime in 1998, Indonesia has been undergoing a systemic transition towards full-fledged democracy encompassing the economy, the political system, the judiciary and societal life. Some of the primary institutional choices pertaining to the structure of government, most notably the relationship between the executive branch and the legislature, have, at least for now, been resolved. Two successfully administered democratic elections in 1999 and 2004, four constitutional amendments and the reform of basic political laws, have also introduced democratic practices and the principles of good governance. New political parties have been allowed to form and contest general elections and the president has been directly elected.

In a huge effort, the country is undergoing the decentralisation of government and services, delegating power from the centre to hundreds of districts and municipalities. The process of Indonesia's transition to democracy is substantially real and the pace in which it tries to absorb and instil democratic practices and the principles of good governance is remarkably impressive.

Despite all the progress on democratisation that has been made, however, the transition is still fragile. Indonesia's economy is struggling to absorb the huge numbers of unemployed and new graduates annually, and poverty, rampant corruption and occasional outbreaks of ethnic violence create a sentiment of mistrust in the government and its institutions. The country’s leaders are forced to redefine the role of government and the relationship with its citizens. The direct election of regional government heads has brought government closer to the people and thereby increases the demand for better services and greater accountability.

Furthermore, in young democracy, the performance of governments in terms of delivering social and economic advancement is critical for legitimacy and political survival. Prolonged failure to meet minimal public expectations invites the possibility of not just the fall of a particular government, or even a series of particular governments, but the breakdowan of democracy. Chronic and severe undeperformance not only begets mounting public dissatisfaction, but opens the door to ambitious political actors who may seek to take advantage of the situation and seize power themselves. Thus it would be dangerous to be complacent about governance in a young democracy such as Indonesia. The reformasi movement which was marked by the downfall of Suharto's regime has not yet been able to achieve the ultimate goal of entrenching the principles of good governance and substantial democracy in Indonesia.

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