After the Philippines, Indonesia too is ripe for a return to authoritarianism – Universities
Endy Bayuni (Jakarta Post)
Wed 11 May 2022
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s landslide victory in this week’s presidential election in the Philippines signals voters’ growing disillusionment with liberal democracy and a penchant for a strong leader. We saw this happen in Thailand when it returned to military rule in 2014, ending its democratic experiment.
This leaves Indonesia as pretty much the only nation in Southeast Asia that is still trying to build the nation along democratic lines with the safeguards of the various freedoms that make up a liberal democracy. But unless we reverse the democratic regression seen in recent years, Indonesia too may soon follow in the footsteps of the Philippines and Thailand and abandon its democratic project.
If it is too early to judge how Marcos Jr. will govern, he symbolizes the figure of a strong leader, succeeding his late father Ferdinand Marcos Sr., the dictator who ruled the Philippines until his dismissal by People Power in 1986. He will also surely draw inspiration from voters who shunned outgoing Vice President Leni Robredo, a human rights lawyer by training, who has carved out the figure of a leader promoting liberal democracy .
The Philippines’ penchant for a strong leader was evident in 2016, with Rodrigo Duterte winning the presidential election. He remained a popular figure throughout his presidency despite numerous flaws, including sexist comments, allegations of sexual abuse and human rights abuses, and a violent drug crackdown that left tens of thousands of Filipino deaths.
If not for the Philippines’ constitution, which limits the president’s term to six years (enacted immediately after Marcos Sr.’s departure), Duterte would surely have won the election this year. Instead, his daughter Sara Duterte looks poised to win the VP election to rule alongside Marcos Jr. Duterte has undoubtedly paved the way for the Marcos dynasty to return to national politics.
It may seem ironic that leaders like Duterte, and now Marcos Jr., won their presidential elections through the democratic process. Both results in 2016 and now in 2022 indicate that the majority of Filipinos are tired of the constant failures of liberal democracy, with which the Philippines has been experimenting since Marcos Sr., to deliver the goods. In their eyes, the 36-year-old democratic project in the Philippines is a dismal failure.
There have been allegations of vote rigging, vote buying and a massive disinformation campaign, but the overwhelming vote for Marcos Jr. is an undeniable indication that this is what the majority of Filipinos want. He is Vox populi but not necessarily Vox Dei.
It’s almost the same story of dynasty politics at play in Thailand, the difference being that the military took over in 2014 with popular support to end the dynasty rule of the Thaksin family. Thaksin Shinawatra served as prime minister from 2001 to 2006, followed by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra from 2011 to 2014. Both siblings were popular but polarizing figures who had little regard for freedom and democracy. Today, the Thai army, which has never been a supporter of democracy, rules the country again.
Indonesia joined the Democratic League of Southeast Asia in 1998, joining the Philippines and Thailand, after overthrowing Soeharto, who had ruled for more than three decades, with military support, also by means of people power . Indonesia then learned a lot from the experiences of these two neighboring countries when it embarked on massive political reform to build its own democracy after 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 neighbors that democracy, with the whole freedom package, remains the best form of government, and who can deliver the goods? Or will he also abandon democracy and return to authoritarianism?
We shouldn’t take anything for granted. Just as we have learned from the success of the Philippines and Thailand in building our democratic institutions, we can learn from their failure and abandonment of democracy.
After 24 years of experimentation, Indonesian democracy is still largely a work in progress. There have been some accomplishments, but certain trends over the past decade point to setbacks that raise questions about where our democracy is headed. The growing polarization of society, the rise of identity politics, the return of large-scale corruption and the erosion of some of our freedoms should sound alarm bells.
Dynasty politics may be stronger in the Philippines than in Indonesia; however, Indonesian family dynasties still work with powerful oligarchs to rule the nation. Collusion between political elites and the wealthy can be just as devastating as political dynasties to our democracy.
For now, we don’t have to worry about a military return to power, but the Thai experience tells us that we shouldn’t be easily dismissive.
We can rejoice 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 favor of the former furniture exporter Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Voters also shunned Hutomo Mandala Putra, Soeharto’s youngest son, who tried to enter politics by creating his own political party.
Soeharto’s popular meme with the caption Piye kabare, enak jamanku to? (“How are you, my time was better, right?”), which comes up from time to time, especially in times of crisis, indicates that there are people who long for the return of a strong authoritarian leader and that there are ambitious people out there who will gladly present themselves as that person.
As in the Philippines and Thailand, the return to authoritarianism in Indonesia would likely be introduced through democratic electoral processes. We shouldn’t let that happen.
We must continue to nurture people’s faith in democracy by ensuring that democracy can and will pay dividends. Failing that, more and more people are willing to consider alternative forms of government, including the return of military rule or a strong authoritarian ruler, or even a combination of the two, as in Soeharto’s time.
The author is editor-in-chief at Jakarta Post.