Indonesia’s Elections Offer Some Light in the Recent Gloom

The past couple of weeks have delivered plenty of terrible news, so I thought I would take a moment to call out a significant positive development: Indonesia held a presidential election early this month; there were no coup attempts and little violence associated with that balloting; and the contest was finally won by the guy who wasn’t threatening to dismantle democracy.

By my reckoning, this outcome should increase our confidence that Indonesia now deserves to be called a consolidated democracy, where “consolidated” just means that the risk of a reversion to authoritarian rule is low. Democracies are most susceptible to those reversions in their first 15–20 years (here and here), especially when they are poor and haven’t yet seen power passed from one party to another (here).

Indonesia now looks reasonably solid on all of those counts. The current democratic episode began nearly 15 years ago, in 1999, and the country has elected three presidents from as many parties since then—four if we count the president-elect. Indonesia certainly isn’t a rich country, but it’s not exactly poor any more, either. With a GDP per capita of approximately $3,500, it now lands near the high end of the World Bank’s “lower middle income” tier. Together, those features don’t describe a regime that we would expect to be immune from authoritarian reversal, but the elections that just occurred put that system through a major stress test, and it appears to have passed.

Some observers would argue that the country’s democratic regime already crossed the “consolidated” threshold years ago. When I described Indonesia as a newly consolidated democracy on Twitter, Indonesia specialist Jeremy Menchik noted that colleagues William Liddle and Saiful Mujani had identified Indonesia as being consolidated since 2004 and said that he agreed with them. Meanwhile, democratization experts often use the occurrence of one or two peaceful transfers of power as a rule of thumb for declaring democracies consolidated, and Indonesia had passed both of those tests before the latest election campaign even began.

Of course, it’s easy to say in hindsight that the risk of an authoritarian reversal in Indonesia around this election was low. We shouldn’t forget, though, that there was a lot of anxiety during the campaign about how the eventual loser, Prabowo Subianto, might dismantle democracy if he were elected, and in the end he only lost by a few percentage points. What’s more, the kind of “reforms” at which Prabowo hinted are just the sorts of things that have undone many other attempts at democracy in the past couple of decades. There were also rumors of coup plots, especially during the nerve-wracking last few weeks of the campaign until the official results were announced (see here, for example). Some seasoned observers of Indonesian politics with whom I spoke were confident at the time that those plots would not come to pass, but the fact that those rumors existed and were anxiously discussed in some quarters suggests that they were at least plausible, even if they weren’t probable. Last but not least, statistical modeling by Milan Svolik suggests that a middle-income presidential democracy like Indonesia’s won’t really be “cured” of its risk of authoritarian reversal until it gets much wealthier (see the actuarial tables on p. 43 in this excellent paper, which was later published in the American Political Science Review).

Even bearing those facts and Milan’s tables in mind, I think it’s fair to say that Indonesia now qualifies as a consolidated democracy, in the specific sense that the risk of an authoritarian reversal is now quite small and will remain so. If that’s right, then four of the world’s five most populous countries now fit under that label. The democratic regimes in India, the United States, Indonesia, and Brazil—roughly 2 billion citizens among them—all have lots of flaws, but the increased prevalence and persistence of democracy among the world’s largest countries is still a very big deal in the long course of human affairs. And, who knows, maybe China will finally join them in the not-too-distant future?

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3 Comments

  1. Grant

     /  July 23, 2014

    Add in most of Europe and it takes another great leap. True, Europe is not a country, but that is an awful lot of people living in democracy. Wish there was a way to tell if this is just a phase of democratic spread simply because the most powerful nations tend to be, or if it’s a much longer term shift in power sharing.

    Reply
    • Most of Latin America now, too. And great question at the end. That’s exactly the one Francis Fukuyama tried to tackle in The End of History and the Last Man, and I still think he was on to something, even if we’ve made a pinata of the title. But, of course, we won’t really know for a long time yet.

      Reply
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