Tag Archives: Civil Rights

Op-Ed: Polarization and the Threat of Democratic Decline

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.

Polarization

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, Jakarta

IG:@burhanuddinmuhtadi

^https://freedomhouse.org/

#https://www.eiu.com/n/

*Democracy and Autocracy Newsletter

For more by Burhanuddin Muhtadi click here.

Short Story: Letter For Wai Tsz

Letter For Wai Tsz

By Leila L. Chudori

The weather in Jakarta seems to be reflecting the state of the nation, hot and sticky, not a tree anywhere to shade under. As for myself, I don’t know why I suddenly thought of writing you a letter. I know all too well that in our graduate newsletter Keep In Touch they’re always mentioning that you’re one of the graduates who hasn’t been seen since Tiananmen. But I live in hope because I will always believe that God will stretch out his hand and protect you. Your last letter, the one smelling of rotten vegetables and dried fish, the one you seemed to have sent from somewhere in the outskirts of Beijing, just before your escape – so heroic, so inspiring – more and more makes me feel so small, so insignificant.

Dear Wai Tsz,

It’s been exactly fourteen years since the four of us were gazing up at the stars, since you, Finn, Maria, and I made that promise. We promised that we would not get married until we had reached those stars.

Our roommate Finn, with her long Snow White blonde hair and blue eyes, told us that her life’s mission was located in the constellation of Andromeda.

“What I want is for men and women to have the same rights. And I think that’s an ideal we all share,” she said in her romantic way.

Our Danish roommate’s idealism was really extremely annoying, and because of that I couldn’t be bothered talking about the problem of the completely rampant poverty and corruption in my own country. It would have been very hard to make her understand. Could you just see it, with her own country so rich and peaceful, how could she have begun to imagine?

Then I remember that Maria from the Philippines said with her firm, self-confident voice, “I long for change in my country, and I hope that I can be a part of that change.” And straight away you and I yelled out trying to be first, “I wanted to say that too!”

“Come on! How could Indonesia have any problems? Your economy is wonderful compared to ours,” Maria replied. “And you, Wai Tsz, China is a sleeping giant that’s just beginning to wake up. When she’s standing up on her own feet, Western countries will be lapped up in one gulp. The Philippines is the only one with such an uncertain future under a president like Marcos…”

But as it transpired the first country to see the smoldering embers of democracy burst into flame was her own country, the Philippines. And just as she had wanted, Maria was a part of the process of bringing democracy to her country. I remember when she sent a newspaper clipping showing her and a group of friends from the University of the Philippines in the middle of that historic demonstration in Edsa Road. It was like a movie. I imagined our roommate, Maria, the one who couldn’t even get up in the morning, now part of such momentous change in her country. Image. She became part of the Philippines’ peaceful revolution in February 1986 when Marcos was finally forced to flee to Hawaii, and a widow finally moved into the presidential office. As all this was going on, for me her neighbor, nothing had changed. I was working for the largest news magazine in my country naively thinking that here everything was nice and peaceful and prosperous. I thought, well, at least it wasn’t as bad as some of the countries that some of our campus friends had come from where there were several coups every year.

Wai Tsz, after we graduated, I came home again to breathe our pollution-filled air and I became a journalist. You went home to breathe your own pollution-filled air in Beijing and you transformed into a human rights activist.

The interesting thing about your country was that as soon as your country opened up and allowed in a handful of American companies, everyone began to say that this was Deng’s great breakthrough. When Chinese students were allowed to read translations of Milan Kundera and watch James Bond movies, it was as if democracy had started to arrive in China. One of your spirited letters related how interesting Fang Lizhi’s lectures were, how he had no hesitation at all using words like “democracy” and “freedom”. But it was only after Tiananmen happened that we realized that the so-called breakthrough talked about by Western experts was just an immensely simplified view of the problem.

Meanwhile, Wai Tsz, in my own country, new economic policies were being implemented which produced hundreds of new banks, new buildings, new companies, new television stations, new rich people, new cars, still more new policies, even more new buildings, more highways, ever more even richer people, and other, oh, absolutely astonishing, truly astounding…

All of this, Wai Tsz, in fact turned us into journalists. Supposedly professional, agile, flexible, competitive, head in the clouds. It made us forget a lot about humanity. For example, yeah, for example, in planning meetings to talk about a war in some country somewhere, we would sit around like a bunch of know-all football commentators abusing one of the “stupid” players as we ate fried chicken and laughed. And, really what we were talking about was the fate of thousands of women and children being slaughtered in the country. This profession made me, just as Professor Humphrey had predicted – he didn’t agree with my choice of becoming a journalist – turned us into “know-alls who don’t know much about anything”.

Professor Humphrey wasn’t completely right, but I have to agree that in a couple of cases he wasn’t too far wrong either. This profession set me up in an ivory tower, made me look at the people as a news item, part of a “deadline”, a conversation on a mobile phone, as no more than a series of meaningless statistics. Tiananmen, an event that was so important for you, was a moral movement. But for us, it was nothing more than a bit of excitement, a fresh infusion of adrenaline, a new pump keeping our journalistic blood circulating. I almost forgot that for years I had a roommate who was probably still on the run, still hiding in garbage bins on the edge of the city. Wai Tsz, where are you?

In your last letter, after the events of June 1989, that smelly smudged letter, I read your handwriting through the ink which had run, “Nadira, help us through your writing.”

Oh, Wai Tsz, I am so ashamed. For sure we wrote about, we covered, we photographed the events in your country proudly. But I am not convinced that the hundreds of journalists who swarmed to cover those events were moved by concern. Maybe there were some who were, but the others were driven by competition, the desire to get an exclusive, and maybe even out of a desire to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize.

Then, this year arrived, 1997, and suddenly I received a shock…

Only now in the midst of so many corporate collapses, bankruptcies, millions of people losing their jobs, bank liquidations, hoarding of food that sends prices soaring, newspaper companies complaining about never-ending increases in the price of paper, student demonstrations, mothers protesting the increases in the price of milk, only now have I again become “human”. Only now have I thought of you. Only now have I thought about our walks along the banks of the Otonabee River, recalled our arguments about equality and about the differences between the East and the West, and, oh, how I remember the Galaxy Theory you explained to me that time you tried to cheer me up after you found me crying. You made me lie down on the grass and look up at the stars.

“At times of sadness and pain, Nadira, fly up to one of those galaxies and leave the Earth. Then from way up there, look back and the Earth will seem so small that you will wonder what on earth you are crying about. After that, fly back to Earth, take a deep breath and the problem will be solved.”

Wai Tsz, your Galaxy Theory was so simple, and so good for so many reasons. But it won’t be any use for the problems of my country, or for the problems of your country. I have never before been as hopeless as I am now. I have never felt as powerless as I do now. Every day I open the window and I hear the complaints of ordinary mothers about the rising price of food, of people who have just lost their jobs, hear news about the speculators dancing for joy with every fall in the value of the currency. Hundreds and hundreds of people have suddenly become actors, smiling sweetly in front of the television cameras saying how much they love the nation.

William Shakespeare was truly a genius when he wrote: All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players, They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.

Do you remember when Professor Johnson read this verse from As You Like It? Am I becoming a useless melancholic character like Jacques?

I can see Shakespeare doubled up in stitches laughing because the world, the stage for this drama, is full of nothing but a rabble of idiots. According to me the stage for this drama is full of people whose acting skills are terrifyingly good. Every morning the papers are full of stories about our economic problems but even the people complaining are still running around scratching for rupiah to exchange for foreign currency, still feeding on the corpse of other people’s suffering.

Wai Tsz, why was I born in a community which created such a meaningful word for community duty as our own word gotong royong but which is in reality just a collection of completely selfish individuals? My heart is broken. If I had been as selfish maybe I would already have flown off to join our friends chasing ever higher qualifications in the United States. But when all’s said and done, my heart is here, Wai Tsz, planted firmly here, rooted firmly in this soil. No matter how strong, there isn’t a crowbar or a hoe that could dislodge my heart from this land.

For months, Wai Tsz, I have been afflicted by horrible nightmares, more like Salvador Dali visions than dreams. One night I dreamed I had fallen from a skyscraper and even though all my limbs came off, I was still alive. Another night I dreamed my hands were chained together and the ends of my legs were being eaten by a pack of black dogs. And another night I was suddenly transported to an empty field where hundreds of crows were attempting to suck my baby from my stomach. To try to stop these dreams I bought a pile of comics. I thought it would make me laugh. In fact, all that happened was I laughed so hard I cried.

Wai Tsz, I remember the time you said, “Something started with a good intention and a good conscience is always harder to believe in than something started with a bad intention.”

Maybe that is the reason people find it hard to believe that a protest movement could be driven by conscience. Maybe the word conscience is not used very much these days, or maybe it’s time to archive it forever in some dusty old museum.

Wai Tsz, where are you? Pretending to be a shop assistant? Or teaching in a tiny primary school in some far away village? Or maybe you’re actually still hiding somewhere in Beijing? I have no idea whether you will ever read this letter. I will send it to your old address in Beijing. Wai Tsz, wherever you are, if you do not get to read this letter, I am sure you have read what is in my heart.

Your friend, Nadira. (Jakarta, November 1997)

 


The short story “Letter for Wai Tsz” (Surat Untuk Wai Tsz) was published in the Jakarta daily newspaper Kompas in March 1999. The story was written about six months prior to, and published some ten months after, the resignation of President Suharto in May 1998. For background on Tiananmen Square see the Washington Post’s 2019 commemorative anniversary piece A massacre, erased. For background on the controversy surrounding the use of the term “people power” in Indonesia after the April 2019 elections see People power is dead, long live people power.