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Does decentralization deliver better democracy in Indonesia?

February 02, 2016

Indonesia began its democratic transition in 1998 after mass protests ousted General Suharto. The first direct presidential elections were held in 2004 and the country passed a decentralization act in 2001 gradually shifting the power from national to local level.

As local politics has become more and more important there has been few studies on how well democracy is doing and if devolving power ultimately strengthens democracy in Indonesia. To identify the achievements as well as pinpoint the problems and opportunities International IDEA together with the Universitas Gadjah Mada (University of Gadjah Mada) in Yogyakarta began a State of Democracy Assessment using the International IDEA framework in 2011.

The assessment was completed in late 2015 and a report was released in Bahasa and in English.

Amalinda Savirani is a lecturer at the Department of Politics and Government at the university and part of the assessment team.

“The importance of the SoLD assessment was that it should be useful to both government and activists and other stakeholders. We partnered with International IDEA because they had this democratic assessment framework and it was a useful instrument to equip ourselves on the practice of democracy. In addition to that, democratic participation, is useful to for the citizens to speak up in monitoring what the government has done to their citizens.”

Regional differences

The assessment team found stark regional differences in how democracy was practiced and how it well delivered based on several factors including geographical location, economic development and ethnic diversity. When working to improve democracy in Indonesia the government, civil society and other stakeholders must take these difference into consideration.

Looking at six different regions

Indonesia is a big country, spread out on several island which made it necessary to limit the scope of the assessment to six specific regions. The regions chosen were South Aceh (Aceh), Solo (Central Java), Jombang (East Java), Parigi Motong (Central Sulawesi), Kupang (East Nusa Tenggara) and Sorong (Papua). The selection was made based on geographic, ethnic and economic considerations.

Much of the work consisted in conducting interviews with people in the regions and one of the challenges the team faced was to get people to answer truthfully. Another problem they faced was their own expectations of what they thought they would find. You might assume that you are doing to understand these issues with these tools, Savirani says, but Indonesia is a very diverse country and you don’t always find what you expect.

“[In the interviewing process] you might assume that all people are equal and that everyone is free to express themselves, as how democratic principles teach us, but how can I express myself freely when I deal with someone more powerful. Someone who maybe pays my education. This social hierarchy is very strong in Indonesia, which eventually affect the practice of democracy.”

Difference in how democracy is practiced

The assessment team also found stark differences between the six regions. Rural and urban areas had different ways of handling democracy as did old and newly established regions. Indonesia’s youthful population, with more than 43 per cent under the age of 25, is another factor to consider as they are well educated and have access to technology and tools the older generations did not.

While people living in urban regions were a little more open the hierarchy was stronger in rural areas.

“The surprise was the way the democracy was being practiced in different ways in different areas.”


There are more than 440 district level authorities in Indonesia stretching from Aceh in the west to Papua in the east. Cultural diversity is playing a key role and it was a struggle to categorize these varieties. The goal was to collect information, experiences and comparisons that could be useful in improving local institutions and democratic processes.

“The thing with the local governments now is that there are so many issues,” Savirani explains. “We can talk about citizen participation, for instance when you push to get a healthcare system in place, or when citizens try to develop and be critical to the government on education, it is challenging to detect directly what impact the assessment has had, especially on the quality of public service such as education and health care.”

Indonesians have become more aware of their democratic rights so an assessment at this point in time will be very helpful to CSOs and citizens. For the CSO, the assessment becomes a tool to detect the quality of democracy. For citizens, the assessment becomes a tool to detect to what extent they themselves have practiced democratic principles through participation and election.

“The thing with democratization is that it is a set of values but when you look at what it gives you it is rights. It is more valuable for the citizens to see how they can use democracy to improve issues that are of concern to them in their everyday life.”

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