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After Philippines, Indonesia too is ripe for return to authoritarianism


The overwhelming victory for Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the presidential election in the Philippines signals voters’ growing disillusionment with liberal democracy and a penchant for a strong ruler.

We saw this happen in Thailand when it reverted to military rule in 2014, ending its democratic experiment.

There have been allegations of vote-rigging, vote-buying and a massive disinformation campaign, but the overwhelming vote for Marcos Jr. undeniably says that this is what the majority of Filipinos want. It is vox populi though not necessarily vox Dei.

It is almost the same story of dynasty politics at play in Thailand, the difference being that the military seized power in 2014 with popular backing to put an end to the reign of the Thaksin family dynasty. Thaksin Shinawatra served as prime minister from 2001 to 2006, followed by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, from 2011 to 2014. Both brother and sister were popular but polarizing figures who had little regard for freedom and democracy. Now the Thai military, never a supporter of democracy, is running the country again.

Indonesia joined the Southeast Asia democratic league in 1998, joining the Philippines and Thailand, after it toppled Soeharto, who had ruled for over three decades, with military backing, also using the people’s power. Indonesia subsequently learned a lot from the experiences of these two neighbouring countries when it began a massive political reform to build its democracy post-Soeharto, from reforming the constitution to building free media institutions.

Can Indonesia hold the fort now to give hope and inspiration to its Southeast Asian neighbours that democracy, with the entire freedom package, remains the best form of government, and one that can deliver the goods? Or will it also abandon democracy and revert to authoritarianism?

We should take nothing for granted. Just as we learned from the success of the Philippines and Thailand in putting together our democratic institutions, we can learn from their failure and their abandonment of democracy.

After 24 years of experimenting, Indonesia’s democracy is still largely a work in progress. There have been some achievements, but some trends in the last decade or so indicate setbacks that raise questions about where our democracy is heading. The increasing polarization of society, the rise of identity politics, the return of corruption on a massive scale and the erosion of some of our freedoms should sound the alarm.

Dynasty politics may be stronger in the Philippines than in Indonesia; however, Indonesian family dynasties still work with powerful oligarchs in ruling the nation. The collusion between the political elites and the moneyed people can be just as devastating as political dynasties to our democracy.

For now, we do not have to worry about a military return to power, but the Thai experience tells us we should not easily be dismissive.

We can take heart that voters in the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections shunned Prabowo Subianto, a former Army general who campaigned on the platform of a strong leader, both times in favour of former furniture-exporter Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Voters also shunned Hutomo Mandala Putra, Soeharto’s youngest son, who has been trying to enter politics by setting up his political party.

The popular meme of Soeharto with the caption Piye kabare, enak jamanku to? (“How you’re doing, my era was better, no?”), which surfaces from time to time, particularly during crisis times, indicates that there are people who long for a return of a strong authoritarian leader and that there are ambitious people who will readily put themselves forward as that person.

As in the Philippines and Thailand, the return to authoritarianism in Indonesia would likely be ushered in through the democratic election processes. We should not let that happen.

We should continue to nurture people’s faith in democracy by making sure that democracy can and will deliver dividends. Failing that, more and more people are willing to consider the alternative forms of government, including the return of the military rule or a strong authoritarian ruler, or even a combination of the two, just as in Soeharto’s time.

By Endy Bayuni 

Published : May 11, 2022

By : The Jakarta Post