Following Democracy in Indonesia

By Suzanne Slattery

Known to most people as an exotic tropical retreat, Indonesia is also home to the world’s largest Muslim population. In the midst of jihadists beheading journalists and Thailand’s lasting military coup, the country’s democratic elections and political situation garnered Western attention. Last month, The New York Times declared Indonesia as “an unlikely role model for democracy.”

Democracy is relatively new to Southeast Asia. Vietnam is a communist one party system and Myanmar, previously under military junta rule, is in the nascent stages of democracy. Indonesia had its first direct presidential elections in 2004. A year later, the country held elections for provincial-level leaders. Its current president-elect, Joko Widodo, has a rags- to- riches story, sympathetic to Western sensibilities. According to multiple news agencies, Widodo came from the Central Java slums as a son of a timber collector. Through good governance, pragmatism and charisma, Widodo climbed the political ranks to be the governor of Jakarta. In contrast, the man he defeated, General Prabowo Subianto, is the son-in-law of the former authoritarian leader who was ousted in 1998. After Widodo narrowly won the elections in July, Subianto refused to concede and appealed to the Constitutional Court. The Court upheld the election results while hundreds of Subianto supporters protested in the streets.

President-Elect Joko Widodo of Indonesia

President-Elect Joko Widodo of Indonesia

Subianto’s party, the Red and White Coalition, still holds the majority in the House of Representatives. After the coalition championed a bill to eliminate local elections, it finally passed on September 26th. Indonesians took to Twitter to express their anger and disappointment, using the hashtag RIP Democracy, Indonesia. With the U.S. government extolling the country as an example of democracy, it’s interesting to examine the media coverage of the recent local elections bill. While the story appeared globally, its importance and framing varied, presumably depending on the importance of democracy to the media outlet.

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal both covered the story expressing a concern for the current political climate and its effects for the new president. Both articles used statements like “hostile environment,” “state of sudden unease” and “stagnation of the democratic process.” The Economist also framed the story as a new guard about to embark on an uphill battle against an older, corrupt centralized power.

The Jakarta Globe had extensive, updated political coverage, but mainly focused on Widodo’s resignation as the governor of Jakarta. It posted a short article on the current Indonesian president drafting an emergency regulation to veto the bill until a later vote. There was no mention of potential problems of democracy or of citizen outcry. Instead, it published an opinion piece where the author lambasted a political oligarchy attempting to regain centralized control.

Parliamentary and local elections held April 9 in West Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia

Parliamentary and local elections held April 9 in West Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia

The Tokyo-based The Diplomat posted a feature called the Elegy of Indonesian Democracy. The piece included statements like “nation mourned” and claimed that the “hard won democracy was under threat.” In contrast, Aljazeera had little to say on the subject. Its last article on Indonesian politics was dated back to the election in July. Coverage from China’s Xinhua News Agency, had less of a “democracy in peril” angle, and focused more on the conflicting parties. It briefly mentioned the bill that would annul the right to vote for regional leaders. There was no mention of public outcry nor did it mention Subianto’s ties to the former military regime.

Photograph of Joko Widodo courtesy of NHD-INFO ( Licensed under Creative Commons.

Photograph of Indonesian election by Sarah Tz from Flickr ( License under Creative Commons.

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