Polarization and the Threat of Democratic Decline
By Burhanuddin Muhtadi
The world has experienced a democratic decline in recent years. Freedom House (2020) reports^ that 25 out of 41 established democracies have experienced an erosion of democracy over the last 14 years. Experts use a variety of terms to describe this phenomenon. Some use the term democratic regression, some democratic recession, and others democratic deconsolidation.
Irrespective of term used the process refers to the same condition, that is the end of the third wave of world democracy that commenced in 1991 along with the rise in populism and the climate of a lack of freedom that threatens many countries.
Uniquely, the main actors behind the decline of democracy around the world are not traditional non-democratic forces like the military or militia but rather democratic political elites elected through electoral mechanisms, as in the case of Donald Trump in the United States, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Viktor Orban in Hungary.
These political leaders were elected through electoral mechanisms. However, they have then used their political mandate to degrade democracy through open attacks on oppositions and the mass media, the excessive use of populism, and identity politics.
What about Indonesia?
Indonesia has not escaped the phenomenon of a regression in democracy described above. In 2014 Freedom House reported that Indonesia’s democracy index category had dropped from free to partly free. The reasons for this downgrading were the threats to civil liberties posed by the civil society law which imposed limits on community organizations, provided for a multiplicity of surveillance of the activities of community organizations, and imposed the obligation to adopt [the state ideology] Pancasila as their founding principle.
Indonesia’s democracy index score has so far not recovered. In the last Freedom House 2020 report, the bad record of our democracy continues to revolve around freedom of assembly, freedom of religion and worship, and intractable corruption.
Another organization that has a democracy index, The Economist Intelligence Unit#, has also recorded similar findings. Our democracy rating has decreased for three consecutive years. In 2016, Indonesia was still ranked 48 out of 167 countries studied. Our democracy ranking has now slipped to number 64 with a score of only 6.39.
Based on the categorization produced by The Economist Intelligence Unit, Indonesia occupies the lowest position in the category of flawed democracies. Indonesia’s report card is red due mainly to issues of civil liberties and a political culture that lacks freedom and features intolerance and identity politics.
The latest study conducted by the Indonesian Political Indicator organization confirms the assessment of these democracy index agencies. Based on a sample of 1,200 respondents in September 2020, Indicator’s national survey found that only 17.7% of respondents rated Indonesia as being more democratic. On the other hand, 36% of respondents considered Indonesia now less democratic, and 37% considered the situation unchanged.
In other words, twice as many people think Indonesia is increasingly undemocratic when compared to those who think that Indonesia is now more democratic.
Based on regression analysis, the perception of democracy in Indonesia is significantly influenced by age. The older the respondents the greater the tendency to think that Indonesia is more democratic. Conversely, the younger the respondents the more negative the perceptions. This is because for older voters the reference point for comparison is democracy under the New Order which is naturally still much worse than today. At the same time, young voters compared current democratic conditions with those of the administration before President Jokowi.
Indicator’s national survey also showed increasing threats to civil liberties. Most of the public tend to agree or strongly agree that at present citizens are increasingly afraid to voice their opinions (79.6%), it is increasingly difficult to demonstrate or protest (73.8%), and the authorities are increasingly arbitrary in arresting people with political views that differ from the views of those in power (57.7%).
However, regression analysis indicates one of the factors that significantly explains the civil liberties index is a combination of three items: fear of voicing an opinion, difficulty in protesting, and that the authorities are increasingly arbitrary and influenced by partisan attitudes.
If the respondent voted for Jokowi-Ma’ruf in the 2019 presidential election, he or she is likely to disagree that civil liberties are becoming worse. On the other hand, Prabowo-Sandi voters tend to agree that civil liberties are decreasing.
Even though Indonesia’s democracy index score has declined over time, we are still better off than other Muslim-majority countries. The results of a study by the American Political Science Association in Democracy and Autocracy (Vol 18 (3) December 2020)* provides this comforting news through the analysis of two dimensions: duration and trajectory.
Duration measures a long or short period of time as a democratic Islamic state, while trajectory indicates the extent to which the general tendency of a country is along a democratic path: whether the trend is improving or worsening.
Indonesia and Senegal, as Muslim-majority countries, have been successful both in terms of their long duration of democracy since separating from authoritarianism, and in terms of democratic trends which are relatively better than other Islamic countries.
Turkey, on the other hand, is an example of a democratic country of long-standing, but the trend of democratization is increasingly less so and more worrying. Malaysia, Mali, Albania, and Tunisia are included among the Islamic countries which possess democratic developments that are very good, but this has not yet been proved because their democracies are not long standing.
So, the decline in Indonesia’s democracy index must be read in the context of the recession of democracy occurring at a global level. Never mind we who have only been a democracy since the fall of the New Order in 1998, many old democratic countries have experienced democratic deconsolidation. Placed in comparison, especially when compared to Islamic countries or countries in the Southeast Asian region, democracy in Indonesia is still better.
One of the features of democratic regression that has occurred globally is a world that is increasingly polarized, citizens divided according to their respective partisan attitudes. These partisan attitudes ultimately lead every voter to ignore objective truths and to make emotions and personal beliefs more important than data and facts. This is what populist leaders then exploit to implement illiberal agendas because of the partisan attitudes of their supporters, allowing the agenda of the populist figure to go according to plan.
The drop in Indonesia’s democracy rank has also been contributed to by deep polarization, especially since the last two presidential elections. The polarization between Jokowi and Prabowo voters has made every fanatical supporter tolerate a tough approach to his or her political opponent that is contrary to democracy. The phenomenon of reporting each other to the police has also created a climate of fear so that freedom of speech has declined.
Social media is fueling more polarization, which is followed by the echo-chamber phenomenon when netizens are trapped in an echo chamber. They tend to select friends who are from the same side. In the echo space objectivity is buried in the uniformity of thought caused by the homogeneity of friends in the timeline.
Finally, they tend to be selective in receiving information on social media. If the information that enters the timeline comes from outside the political network, it will be rejected, however accurate. But if the incoming information comes from his or her group, the information will be spread even if it is fake.
The polarization that destroys common sense did not end when the Great Indonesia Movement Party joined the government. The division between the camps of Jokowi’s “tadpoles” and Prabowo’s “bats” will not stop, notwithstanding Prabowo and Sandiaga Uno having now become ministers of President Jokowi.
Put simply, the unhealthy political polarization must be halted immediately so we can put the brakes on the democratic deconsolidation that is taking place. Common sense must be restored in democratic life by making objectivity, data, and facts supreme, not emotions and partisan attitudes.
New Year 2021 should be a valuable moment to enable us to reduce polarization as much as possible. This way we can restore reason to discourse in the public arena, so the waters are not muddied any further or the situation made more toxic. It is within just such an atmosphere of healthy public space that we can acknowledge our democracy is right now fogged in. This is the reason we need a common solution to reverse the current democratic decline.
“Polarization and the Threat of Democratic Decline” (Polarisasi dan Ancaman Resesi Demokrasi) was published in Media Indonesia on 28 Dec 2020. https://mediaindonesia.com/kolom-pakar/372089/polarisasi-dan-ancaman-resesi-demokrasi
Burhanuddin Muhtadi is the Executive Director of Indonesian Political Indicator (indikator.co.id) and Lecturer in the Faculty of Social and Political Science at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, JakartaIG:@burhanuddinmuhtadi