Democratic Recession In Southeast Asia And The Indonesian Anomaly

Illiberal, strongman populism has taken hold across Southeast Asia over the past half-decade, with many hybrid states backsliding and others entrenching further into authoritarianism. The factors instigating this democratic recession are varied across the Southeast Asian region and rely upon each State’s political history, culture and ethnic composition. Whereas Myanmar’s strong legacy of totalitarianism and authoritarianism has re-emerged and manifested in the targeting of the Rohingya people, the Philippines suffers from a weak party system. Other countries like Thailand have fallen into what Nicholas Farrelly calls a ‘coup culture’ that has entrenched instability and have caused disillusionment with democracy among Thai citizenry.

Indonesia, however, resists the common pattern of democratic breakdown and has instead fostered a thriving civil society. After the collapse of Suharto’s authoritarianism in 1998, not only have human rights been formally recognized in Indonesia but civil and labour groups have emerged as a vocal and vibrant part of Indonesian society. Consisting of local, professional, intermediary and mass-based groups, Indonesia’s civil groups have a long history of campaigning for democracy and human rights. Although Indonesia’s civil society has been successful in overcoming the organic corporatism of Suharto’s regime and opening up social space for civil engagement, significant challenges still remain for the accomplishment of civil, political and labour rights in a region increasingly controlled by a populist elite.

Unions in Indonesia have and continue to attempt to form labour parties, however, despite the fall of Suharto, majority parties in Indonesia have worked to reduce the capacity of civil groups to lodge a formal political challenge by applying almost unattainable entry requirements. Responsively, civil and labour groups across Indonesia have had to adopt an autonomous political party strategy whereby they foster temporary agreements with various parties regionally to accomplish their short term goals.

As outlined by Professor Michele Ford, this tactic has shown to be somewhat effective, with presidential candidates Jokowi Widodo and Prabowo Subianto evolving their campaigns to focus on labour commitments and social guarantees rather than relying on the tradition of voters loyalty to heritage, familial ties, and charisma.

Nevertheless, the space for civil society groups to actively engage their political leaders is far more restricted in Indonesia than in most other liberal democracies. In a region experiencing a resurgence of authoritarianism and identity politics, it is imperative that the democratic participation of Indonesia’s civil groups is supported and encouraged.

One important factor supporting Indonesia’s energetic union environment is trade union aid. A remnant from the Cold War era, trade union aid is provided mostly by European countries but is also supported by Australia. Trade union aid was historically targeted at non-communist unions in Southeast Asia and Latin America in an attempt to offset the domino effect from a grass roots level. Although now a donation tradition with no core political purpose, there are still millions of euros flowing through these development projects which support Indonesia’s civil groups. In most instances, it has worked to prop up labour and human rights groups in their fledgling stages. However, there have been circumstances where the influx of overseas support has created an organizational over-reliance and thus difficulty to gain and maintain membership dues in a context where the average Javanese wage borders on a dollar a day.

Nonetheless, this importance of foreign aid donors for Southeast Asian civil groups creates a unique upward and downward accountability to both Western sponsors and civil and union members which have worked to create dynamic and agile organizational models. For now, the situation in Indonesia is stable and has proven resilient against the turning political tide of its neighbours. The opening of Amnesty International’s office in Jakarta in 2017 to support campaigns against the death penalty and involvement of Human Rights Watch’s local team to provide coverage of human rights in Indonesia are promising signals of ongoing support for grass roots Indonesian civil society.

Even though it may have its genesis in the Cold War, the tradition of trade union aid has never been more important for the resilience, capacity, and integrity of civil society engagement in Indonesia. To maintain a stable democracy within the Southeast Asian region, the ability for civil society groups to campaign, lobby and persuade majority parities is critical in holding President Jokowi Widodo accountable for his campaign promises.

Abbey Dorian
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