Indonesia and the Philippines: A tale of two democracies

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czech legendary writer Milan Kundera famously argued: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” In many ways, this was the struggle that defined the most recent elections in the world’s third largest democracy, Indonesia.

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czech legendary writer Milan Kundera famously argued: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” In many ways, this was the struggle that defined the most recent elections in the world’s third largest democracy, Indonesia.

Jakarta’s youthful, popular governor, Joko Widodo, affectionately known as “Jokowi”, fought an electoral war of attrition against Prabowo Subianto, a Suharto-era general, who unabashedly emphasised his roots in Indonesia’s autocratic past, despite allegations of widespread human rights violations under his watch.

It was a battle between two visions: Prabowo extolled the supposed virtues of ironclad leadership, boasting Indonesia’s achievements under Suharto’s dictatorship (1967-1998), while Jokowi promised a new era of participatory democracy, where citizens are treated as direct stakeholders in the determination of their political life. Prabowo sought to exploit uncertainty and fear; Jokowi tapped into a wellspring of optimism and hopefulness among the populace, especially the youth, who played an important role in Jokowi’s rise to national stardom.

Prabowo held no punches to eviscerate his opponent’s electoral appeal, launching a vicious campaign that threw all sort of baseless claims against Jokowi, who had to painstakingly disprove rumours that he was either of Singaporean Chinese descent or a Christian.

Amid a climate of economic nationalism in Indonesia, which has seen a resuscitation of protectionist measures in the mining sector, Jokowi was also forced to defend his patriotism by dismissing Prabowo’s accusations that he is close to foreign investors and a pro-market ideologue. The smear campaign managed to neutralise Jokowi’s double-digit lead in the initial stages of the presidential contest, raising fears of electoral violence and contentious leadership transition.

Fortunately, Indonesia managed to conduct a largely peaceful and credible presidential election, praised by many international observers, which saw Jokowi winning by a significant margin (8.5 million votes). Prabowo’s subsequent political theatrics and legal manoeuvres failed to garner support from the political establishment and the greater majority of the Indonesia populace.

Thanks to the constitutional court’s unequivocal dismissal of Prabowo’s electoral complaints, Jokowi is poised to become Indonesia’s new president later this year.

For sure, Indonesia’s myriad of socio-economic challenges will test Jokowi’s mettle of leadership. By raising expectations too high, he will inevitably disappoint many of his supporters, who are yet to appreciate the limits of presidential power in a quasi-oligarchic system.

But Jokowi’s meteoric rise to power reflects a tectonic shift in Indonesia’s political landscape. Perhaps, a better way of appreciating Indonesia’s democratic gains is by comparing it to the experience of a neighbouring country, the Philippines, which has had a longer tradition of electoral democracy, but still struggles to sustain its democratic march.

The natural siblings

In Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Indonesia are widely considered the only two electoral democracies in the region, having successfully conducted a number of presidential elections, which have been considered as largely fair, popular, and competitive. While neither of the two countries can be considered as a mature democracy, they have at least managed to qualify as what academics classify as a “minimalist-procedural” democracy.

In contrast to their autocratic neighbours, which regularly conduct parliamentary elections to create a veneer of democratic competition, the Philippines and Indonesia have seen a genuine rotation of power among competing political parties: Elections were not simply a staged effort for the legitimisation of the incumbent party/coalition, providing opposition parties a genuine chance at electoral victory.

Thanks to the democratisation process, civil-military relations have also improved, with the armed forces in Indonesia and the Philippines increasingly professionalised and disinterested in politics. In recent years, both countries have also emerged as among the most promising economies in Asia. Their favourable demographics, improved macro-economic indicators, and vast natural resources have attracted investors from around the world.

In defiance of autocratic leaders, which have self-servingly argued against democratisation and human rights at lower stages of economic development, both Indonesia and the Philippines have managed to qualify as electoral democracies despite widespread poverty, inequality, and relatively low income levels.

However, in absence of an egalitarian economic system, and the failure of land reform in both countries, electoral contestation has been largely dominated by political dynasties and oligarchs, which bankroll personalised political parties that lack any genuine ideology and grassroots support. Bureaucratic red tape is a huge problem in Indonesia and the Philippines, which feature among the most corrupt countries in Asia.

Both countries are still struggling with the legacy of past dictators, Suharto in Indonesia and Marcos in the Philippines, who transformed the state institutions into instruments of personal control. This has left a hollow state apparatus, susceptible to corruption and manipulation by the political class.

Once Marcos (1986) and Suharto (1998) were gone, the process of political decentralisation simply spread institutional corruption and political patronage to multiple levels of governance. As a result, the democratisation process in both countries had to simultaneously contend with issues of representation and capacity-building.

The great divergence

The Philippines is considered to be among the oldest democracies in Asia, which goes all the way back to the country’s independence in the first half of the 20th century. The introduction of martial law in early-1970s put an end to an increasingly dysfunctional system, which saw the landed elite and prominent political dynasties blocking efforts at instituting genuine land reform, new taxation measures, and systematic industrialisation.

But the Marcos dictatorship, which ended after the 1986 EDSA Revolution, oversaw long-term economic decline, uncontrolled population growth, and a huge explosion of public debt. The post-EDSA Philippines, however, has seen a succession of governments, which failed to maintain the democratisation momentum in the country. The old political dynasties have simply established a peaceful co-existence with the remnants of the Marcos regime.

The Benigno Aquino administration, which came to power in 2010 on a strong anti-corruption agenda, has ushered in several years of unprecedented economic boom and political stability. In recent months, amid a flurry of corruption scandals and continued frustration with the lack of inclusive growth, however, the Aquino administration has suffered from declining popularity, which has been exacerbated by an ongoing skirmish between the executive and the judiciary branches of the government.

As the country approaches the 2016 presidential elections, which will most likely be dominated by elements of the established elite, Aquino has come under fire for expressing his willingness to change the Philippines’ post-Marcos constitution in order to extend his stay in office, provoking rumours of military intervention against the government. Investors and activists alike are worried that once Aquino steps down, the country will revert back to a vicious form of political patronage, which animated previous administrations.

In contrast, Indonesia, which began its democratisation process less than two decades ago, has produced a unique leader in Jokowi, who hails from a humble background and has been praised for his unique brand of people-centred governance.

Although there are concerns that Jokowi will pander to his political patrons, namely former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, his electoral success against all odds reflects a deep transformation in Indonesia’s political landscape. Indonesia has produced a new breed of political leaders committed to reform, and supported by a burgeoning middle class, which has mobilised against business-as-usual politics. Jokowi’s significant political mandate could provide him enough autonomy to pursue his vision of a mature democratic Indonesia.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings.Follow him on Twitter: @Richeydarian