New poll asks: Is democracy working for Indonesia?

Indonesians preparing to vote at a local voting poll flickr photo by USAID Indonesia shared as a Public Domain United States Government Work (PD)

Survey data shows Indonesians aren’t satisfied with how their democracy is functioning during the COVID-19 crisis. As the country’s economy dives, citizens are questioning their leaders’ decisions.


A new poll in Indonesia shows that the country may be questioning aspects of its political system in light of the pandemic.

According to a survey by polling group Indikator Politik Indonesia (IPI), public satisfaction with the country’s democracy has dropped sharply, from 75.6% in February to 49.5% in mid-May. While the country saw similar low confidence ratings in 2008 and late 2011, the precipitous drop is unique.

The survey showed a similar trend in public opinion on the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis: in February, 70.8% of respondents were satisfied with the central government’s response but by May, that number had dropped to 56.4%.

“Democracy seems to be the foremost victim of the COVID-19 response,” IPI Executive Director Burhanuddin Muhtadi told The Jakarta Post.

But the responses suggest the Indonesian public isn’t opposed to democracy as a system of governance, but simply unsatisfied with the way democracy currently functions—or doesn’t function—in the country.

The survey also doesn’t suggest Indonesia is rejecting its leadership outright—approval for President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo sat steady just below 70%. Instead, it shows Indonesians are skeptical about their government’s competence and need their leaders to adopt clear, effective policies that address their needs.

Doubts about democracy stem from economic crisis

The Indonesian public’s concerns about governance center on the economic impacts of COVID-19, as millions have already lost their jobs. The World Bank estimates that in a worst-case scenario, nearly 10 million people could fall into poverty as a result of the pandemic.

But as far as whether COVID-19 restrictions should continue or the economy should open up—the public was split. As in many places, re-opening businesses may prove disastrous for Indonesia, which has one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 testing in the world—and one of the highest death rates.

Indonesia has over 35,000 coronavirus cases and over 2,000 deaths from COVID-19. The government’s response to the pandemic was slow and the Jokowi administration worked to maintain business as usual long after many of Indonesia’s neighbors shut their cities down.

Repeated changes to rules have caused significant confusion, frustrating the public. As the country has begun to lift some restrictions, the government has deployed hundreds of thousands of soldiers and police officers to support its COVID-19 containment measures.

Muhtadi said the poll data supported the conclusion that the dire state of the country’s economy plays a role in people’s satisfaction with the country’s governance, as “there is a correlation between the economy and the perception of the democracy.” Eighty-one percent of respondents to the survey said the national economic condition was “bad” or “very bad.”

The government has already set aside US$44 billion for COVID-19 economic relief and further stimulus packages are on the way, but the economy may still shrink 3.5% if restrictions continue, down from its 5% growth rate in 2019. The Indikator Politik survey suggests that Indonesians need to see their leaders take more effective—and transparent—steps to address the economic crisis.

Analysts say the central government is consolidating power

Indonesia’s democracy is in its early adulthood. The country emerged from the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, following mass demonstrations. Given this history of authoritarianism, political analysts are wary of any possible abuses of power.

Since the start of the pandemic, skeptics have raised concerns about a series of moves by the government to consolidate power. A new government regulation gives the president power to promote or fire any civil servant arbitrarily. The Jakarta Post Editorial Board published a brief column entitled “Fight COVID-19, not critics.” But the largest threats to Indonesian democracy have come from the government’s moves towards deregulation, rather than authoritarianism.

Photo: Pikrepo

The House of Representatives recently passed a revised version of the country’s Coal and Mineral Mining Law that expands mining exploration, removes caps on the size of mines and grants the central government, rather than regional authorities, the power to issue mining permits. It also extends the contracts of six major coal mining companies for an additional 20 years.

Jokowi has backed another bill—the Omnibus Law on Job Creation—that is allegedly designed to facilitate business and boost the economy, but it appears to be ripe for abuse of power and may conflict with the Indonesian Constitution by giving the president exclusive authority. It would also roll back environmental regulations and weaken laws around public consent to development projects.

Jokowi isn’t a strongman looking to exploit a crisis—he’s not Cambodia’s Hun Sen or Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha. He’s largely delegated the handling of specific aspects of the crisis. The government’s moves to consolidate power are alarming, but they don’t reek of dictatorship.

Rising public dissatisfaction with the government does throw Indonesia into the global debate on whether democracy or authoritarianism is better suited to address a pandemic.

“Regardless [of] whether there is conclusive evidence, it is the general perception, also in Indonesia, that democracy puts shackles on top leaders and prevents swift and effective action,” said Rainer Heufers, executive director of the Centre for Indonesian Policy Studies.

But this idea that the public is now skeptical of democracy offers a far too narrow and simplistic view of Indeonsians’ politics. The country is facing a plummeting economy and discontent is largely a reaction to this crisis. What matters to the country’s 270 million people right now are pro-poor policies, clear leadership and whether or not they can feed their families—not debates about systems of governance.

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