Democratic Backsliding in Indonesia: Past and Future of Atrocity Crimes


Illustration of mural of Jokowi. Photo: Fajrin Raharjo

Indonesia, which currently is the biggest democracy in Southeast Asia in terms of population, have been experiencing democratic backsliding in recent years. After the tumultuous reign of Soekarno and the authoritative period under Soeharto, the Reformation of 1998 provided a spur for democratic development in Indonesia. This development continues for more than a decade after the Reformation; however, things began to change in the second decade of the 21st century. The polarization during the contentious 2014 Presidential Election, 2017 Jakarta Gubernatorial Election, and 2019 Presidential Election, in which the issues of Islamic populism and minority being the most-debated contentions at the time had created questions regarding the existence of minority and their rights in Indonesia. Alongside polarization, the political elites of Indonesia had created laws and regulations that jeopardize civil liberties, and often coupled with draconian enforcement of said laws and regulations. These signs of democratic backsliding are very worrying to a lot of people, especially in relations to protection of minority groups and the overall human rights situation in Indonesia. In this article, the writer will argue that two dynamics of democratic backsliding in Indonesia which are the increases in public polarization and elite-enabled state-sponsored repression will negatively affect the future of atrocities prevention and simultaneously hampering the reconciliation of past atrocities.

The polarization which consists of cleavage between Islamic and pluralist groups, which can be traced to the early period of Indonesia’s statehood, however the deepening polarization that we see today didn’t manifest until the end of the President Yudhoyono administration.  Some explanations for this phenomenon could be attributed to three interlinked factors, which are political entrepreneurs, populism, and societal shift (Warburton, 2020). The political entrepreneurs before President Jokowi had accommodate the various Islamic religious groups through generous state funding, ministerial positions, and other patronage opportunities, however with Jokowi’s rising popularity, various Islamic groups fear that his non-traditional political background and his pluralist party affiliation will cut off the group’s access to these benefits. Patronage democracies like Indonesia are particularly vulnerable to populism because populist mobilization thrives where ties between voters and non-populist parties do not exist or have decayed, which When linkages between voters and parties are weak, charismatic individuals at the national level can make direct, personal appeals to the masses and minimize their use of formal party structures (Warburton, 2020). On top of these two dynamics, Indonesian society is currently undergoing a societal shift where more and more people are more religiously devoted than before, which in some capacities could be attributed to the growing social influence of conservative groups that benefited from Yudhoyono’s patronage. This societal shift provides a fertile ground for populist leaders to use polarizing sectarian narrative in expanding their voter bases.

In light of this democratic decline phenomenon, the actions taken by ruling-elite to “remedy” this problem ironically only add more fuel to the democratic decline. The ruling elite often use laws and regulations such as Criminal Code, Blasphemy and ITE laws to ward off and contain criticism by citizens, opposition figures and anti-corruption activists (Warburton & Aspinall, 2019). Example of this could be seen during the 2019 Presidential Election where the authorities harassed and threatened anti-Jokowi activist with persecution. Furthermore, the inclusion of political elites from military background, such as Prabowo and Wiranto, which come from the New Order’s military establishment only worsens the issue. President Jokowi’s non-political elite background and his pluralist tendency which goes against Yudhoyono’s political elites requires Jokowi to look for other source of political power to solidify his administration. Many of the New Order’s figures remain wealthy and politically connected, albeit in a democratic setting (Sambhi, 2021). Other than the military, Jokowi also relies on the police as both a security and political force. This reliant on the military and security apparatus could be one of the factors explaining heavy-handed approach taken by the government when responding to critics or opposition.

When talking about the implications of the current democratic decline dynamics, there are at least several common risk factors that might increase the risk of atrocity crimes. The first of these common risk factors is the presence of instability. Sectarian and racial sentiments that are prominent during the three contentious elections in 2010s, and was used by populist candidates to bolster the electability had created a phenomenon of accusing one another of among societal groups. During the 2017 gubernatorial, the then-incumbent governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (a.k.a. Ahok), has long been targeted by radical groups due to his double minority status (Chinese-Christian) and this was amplified during the campaign with his competitors fueling anti-Christian and anti-Chinese sentiment to damage his election chances. This saw some candidates move closer to, or align themselves with, religious hard-liner groups such as the Islamic Front Defenders (Front Pembela Islam, FPI). The FPI organized mass public rallies in an attempt to persuade the Muslim community not to vote for a non-Muslim candidate, depicting such acts as a sin and suggesting that ‘good’ Muslims should not bury Muslims who vote for a non-Muslim candidate (Alexandra, 2018). Even though the situations had passed, this sentiment still lingers and might erupt again during a politically contentious period or social-economic upheaval.

The presences of polarization and ruling political elites’ effort to address the issue then created another risk factors which is motives or incentives, and this risk factor at the same time also exacerbate another risk factor which is the weakness of state structures. In this article, the motive for political elites will be to eliminate societal polarization, while the incentive will be strengthening political rule due to the diminishing political opposition. In efforts to curb criticism that stemmed from societal polarization, the government drafted and implement new laws and regulations. Laws such as the Criminal Code, Blasphemy and ITE laws, while on the very surface try to prevent polarization and division, are currently being repurposed by the elites to silence oppositions. For example, many clauses in ITE laws are using very loose definitions, hence they could be freely interpreted and being used to prosecute critics, oppositions or minorities by accusing them of hate-speech or defamation (Burhan, 2021). The arbitrary use of laws and regulations by political elites, coupled with among other things, the high level of corruption in the state apparatus, ensured that the judicial system is very prone to tampering. According to 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) (Transparency International, 2021), corruption in Indonesia sits at rank 96 from a total of 180 countries in the data. With this level of corruption, it safe to say that people accused with these laws will be in a very difficult positions due to elites tampering with the judicial process. Furthermore, the presence of many political elites from the military and security apparatus eroded civilian control, and ensuring this apparatus will lean more towards the elite’s interests. In short, the high level of corruption and eroding civilian control are contributing to a weak state structure.

The presences of problematic laws, high-level of corruption, and dominance of political elites from military and security background or with connection to the New Order regime then contributed to another common risk factor, which is the record of serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Many of the political elites, especially those who are from military and security background still have connection to the New Order era. According to Kimura (2014), there are little financial or political gains to address these violations for the political elites, especially when these elites are currently holding offices in the government. The refusal to address human right violations also extends to violations that were committed in the post-Suharto era. Academic freedom, such as discussion of sensitive topics is actively being repressed by the elites through threat of criminalization or harassment by the authorities. For example, screenings of The Look of Silence (Senyap), a film by Joshua Oppenheimer about the communist massacre during the early Suharto period, were canceled, disrupted or banned at several universities in Yogyakarta, Malang and Surabaya among others (Wiratraman, 2016). Furthermore, according to a study performed YLBH, many people face detention, violence, and prosecution for voicing their opinion in public (Yasmin, 2020).

Indonesia’s democratic backsliding after the 1998 Reformation could be attributed to the increasing polarization in society and the creation of problematic laws and regulations. However, these two factors are inter-connected, and also fueling the common risk factors for atrocity crimes in Indonesia. Conservative Islamist groups which were used to the patronage politics of the previous administration are trying fight the popularity of pluralist political groups by using sectarian and racist narratives, and also cooperating with populist leaders, which they themselves use to shore up more voters. In response to these groups, the government then turned to the military and security apparatus to strengthen its political power and rolling out laws to combat the narrative of these groups. However, the existences of these groups and efforts of the governments simultaneously increased the common risk factors for atrocities crimes by fueling hate toward minorities; elites using illiberal laws and regulation, which coupled with pervasive corruption and waning civilian controls, enabling for the crackdown of opposition and dissent; finally, the numerous presences of elites with connection to the New Order era or security apparatus guaranteed the ignoring and silencing of resolutions for past and future atrocity crimes.


Alexandra, Lina (2018). Atrocity Crimes Risk Assessment Series: Indonesia. Brisbane: Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

Kimura, Ehito (2014, 17 January). The Problem of Transitional Justice in Post-Suharto Indonesia. Middle East Institute.

Sambhi, Natalie (2021, 22 January). Generals gaining ground: Civil-military relations and democracy in Indonesia. Brookings.

Warburton, Eve (2020, 18 August). Deepening Polarization and Democratic Decline in Indonesia. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Warburton, Eve & Aspinall, Edward (2019). Explaining Indonesia’s Democratic Regression: Structure, Agency and Popular Opinion. Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs, 41(2), 255-285.

Wiratman, Herlambang P. (2016, 15 February). Academic freedom post-Soeharto: Not much better. The Jakarta Post.

Yasmin, Nur (2020, 11 Februari). Civil Rights Violations On the Up in Indonesia. Jakarta Globe.

Maula Mohamad Haykal adalah mahasiswa Hubungan Internasional Universitas Airlangga. Dapat ditemukan di Instagram dan Twitter dengan nama pengguna @maulahk dan @shitpostmemz

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