Dan Slater on Indonesia

Dan Slater

Dan Slater is the Weiser Professor of Emerging Democracies in the Department of Political Science and director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. Dan is also the coauthor of the forthcoming book From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern Asia with Joseph Wong.

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This might sound like a cliche, but in Indonesia it’s really, really true. My hope rests in the Indonesian people and the voters. I mean, the voters, they show up. The voters have been the ones to defend democracy. They’ve been the ones to reject the most anti-pluralistic candidates, not all Indonesian voters, but a slim majority. They’ve been managing to do it.

Dan Slater

Key Highlights

  • A brief account of how Indonesia democratized
  • What is democratization through strength
  • How elites held onto power after democratization
  • What makes Indonesia a hard place for democracy
  • The current state of Indonesia’s democracy

Podcast Transcript

Thank you for listening to the Democracy Paradox: A podcast on democracy, democratization, and world affairs. Each week we talk about big picture insights to better understand political issues and events. These are complex ideas that might be unfamiliar so, I always provide a complete transcript at democracyparadox.com. 

Today’s guest is Dan Slater. Dan is the Weiser Professor of Emerging Democracies in the Department of Political Science and director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. He also has a forthcoming book From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern Asia coauthored with Joseph Wong.

I reached out to Dan, because he has a chapter on Indonesia in another forthcoming book called Democracy in Hard Places. It’s a fascinating volume edited by Scott Mainwaring and Tarek Masoud. In the book’s introduction they write, “Democracies in hard places overcome underdevelopment, ethnolinguistic diversity, state weakness, and patriarchal cultural norms.” But what I find appealing is they defy our expectations about the conditions for democracy. Just as important I like how this approach focuses on democratic resilience rather than decline. 

The following few episodes will explore the challenges and obstacles democracies in hard places face. However, I also want to acknowledge what these countries get right in difficult circumstances rather than dwell on their failures. Indeed, a country like Indonesia is more than an outlier. It challenges assumptions about democracy and democratization that we take for granted too often. Like always you can send any questions or comments to jkempf@democracyparadox.com. Here is my conversation with Dan Slater…


Dan Slater, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Dan Slater

Thanks for having me.


Well, Dan, I’m a really big fan of yours and I was really excited to see that you had a forthcoming book coming From Development to Democracy. And as I read through it and worked through the theory, this idea of democratization through strength, Indonesia came off as almost a special case to me. It both confirms parts and defies parts of your concept and I think this process, the democratization process, was one of the many reasons why Indonesia fits the theme of democracy in hard places. So, let’s just start at the beginning. Can you briefly describe Indonesia’s story of democracy?

Dan Slater

Sure. So, Indonesia was ruled by the Suharto regime which dubbed itself The New Order Regime from the mid-1960s until 1998. The regime came to power through quite an infamous genocidal outburst of violence against the Communist PKI, so basically with a lot of American support, very much on the US side in the cold war. So, the Suharto regime, certainly the violence when it came to power, made it one of the more notorious dictatorships of the Cold War Era, although it became a pretty routinized regime and the kind of violence you saw at the outset was for the most part not repeated, although East Timor would be a pretty big exception to that.

So, it was a pretty suffocating authoritarian regime and it had relatively impressive economic performance. You had high economic growth. You had the country go from being really a basket case in the 1960s to being more of a lower middle-income economy by the 1990s. So, the place was perceived as very, very stable, and there was very little sense that democratization was on the horizon. People expected that Suharto would go eventually. He’d been in power over thirty years, but people generally expected some kind of military rule would follow him. He ruled crucially not only through the military, but also through a dominant ruling party called Golkar which is essentially an organization mostly of state employees and then supporters of the regime.

So, the big shock came in 1997. It wasn’t a shock in some ways to people who fully appreciated just how corrupt the regime was. It was an astoundingly corrupt regime. But when the Asian Financial Crisis hit, Indonesia really got hit harder than anybody else, even harder than Thailand, harder than Malaysia, harder than South Korea. So, economic crisis led to a lot of protests and between late 1997 and eventually by May 1998 those protests led to elite defection. Suharto’s cabinet started abandoning him, the military split to some degree, and eventually he was sort of left without active support. So, he resigned in a TV address in May 1998. So, that was the end of the Suharto regime and then I guess we can probably talk separately about how you get from that to actually installing what’s been a democracy for almost 25 years.


Yeah. Why don’t we go ahead and do that right now, because BJ Habibie succeeds Suharto, but he doesn’t actually have to democratize. I mean, you have a quote in the book where you write, “Ending a dictatorship does not equal establishing a democracy.” Many dictatorships lead to new dictatorships. In fact, we saw that in Indonesia where effectively Sukarno led to Suharto. So, why is it that we saw the Suharto regime collapse and yet transition into a democracy shortly after?

Dan Slater

So, it was about a year long process, basically. So, May, 1998, Suharto steps down. As you say, BJ Habibie, his handpicked Vice President, becomes President. So, it’s sort of like a constitutional institutionalized transfer of power. It wasn’t sort of an irregular overthrow of the regime. So, the regime basically stays in place except for Suharto. So, over the course of the next year with Habibie in the presidency, the regime starts a process of political opening and they start leveling the playing field. They start allowing new opposition parties to form. During the Suharto regime, only three parties were allowed to exist. So, that opens up. The press becomes free. Political prisoners get released. All of these reforms that we see point toward democratization all take place. This culminates then in June 1999 with parliamentary elections, the first free and fair elections in Indonesia since 1955.

So, it’s a process and it’s, as Don Horowitz famously put it, it was an inside job. So, you asked the question, ‘Well, why?’ So, Joseph Long and I are co-authors of this book and we argue that really any case of democratization is probably going to include elements of regime weakness and regime strength. We just think that it’s a lot better theorized why authoritarian regimes democratize when they are weak. We talk a lot about how they collapse and why they collapse, but it’s also the case that a lot of times democracy doesn’t come about because the regime fears revolution or it fears a violent overthrow. It’s because they’re actually confident that stability can be maintained and that they can keep winning elections in a more free and fair way.

So, we kind of have to recognize this as a possibility. I think that Taiwan and South Korea are the clearest cases, I would say of this, in the parts of Asia we talk about. I mean, all cases have their complications, Indonesia included. So, the way I would think about Indonesia is you have to distinguish a couple of different things here. One is to distinguish how strong the country is and how strong the conservatives are, particularly civilian conservatives. You know, those who can actually win. So, there’s an interesting parallel to Japan. So, Japan after World War II, I mean, you can’t get a country in a weaker position. The country’s lost the war. It has had two nuclear bombs dropped on it. Obviously, the country is on its knees.

But if you think about civilian politicians, conservative party politicians in Japan after 1945, their position is actually strengthened because the military is finished. The monarchy has lost its status of being kind of above politics. So, basically, they become the leading figures in politics and they are confident they can win elections as the 1950s roll along and they get some experience with competing in elections. So, Indonesia in the same way, the country is on its knees. The country is decimated. The economy is destroyed. But that doesn’t mean that the political elites in charge are without options or without paths forward.

So, this is an authoritarian regime that held regular elections every five years for the past three decades. They were not free and fair, but they did allow politicians to develop some kind of sense of their electoral strength. There are enormous amounts of patronage that flowed from Jakarta to the provinces and to localities during the Suharto regime. So, politicians gained a reputation in a lot of places of being able to deliver the goods which is, again, a bit like Japan with the LDP. So, if you have a reputation of doing that, you have some confidence that you can compete in elections.

So, while the political center, Jakarta and much of Java, the island on which Jakarta is located and where a majority of Indonesians live, Golkar, the ruling party really got hit very, very hard. Off of Java, they did relatively well in elections and politicians who are from outside of Java had reasons to believe they would do relatively well. Habibie himself, crucially was from Sulawesi. He is not from Java. So, in his case, I think he was one among many figures in Golkar who looked at this political moment and said, ‘Well, if we actually open things up and hold elections, the parts of Golkar from the outer islands, from off of Java, have a good chance here to actually strengthen their hold on this political party, because we’re going to do better in elections than the Javanese members of Golkar.’

So, basically, the country is a shambles economically, but as the political elites in charge look at, ‘How are we going to stabilize things? What’s our best path to hold onto as much power as we can?’ Democracy winds up being the best way they have available to do that.


So, Dan, before we get back into Indonesia has kind of a case study. I want to take a second and just kind of dissect the theory, because it compliments a lot of other guests that I’ve had on the podcast and even though that your book is new, I mean, it hasn’t even been published yet, a lot of the guests that I’ve had on the podcast are actually referencing some of your earlier works some of your earlier articles on this subject.

Michael Miller’s one that I know was building on some of your ideas and in his recent book, Shock to the System, he wrote, “Democratization is most likely when the resulting shift in power is as small as possible because leaders either are already weak in autocracy or believe they will be strong in democracy.” And that gets to the heart of what you’re describing here which is that democratization works best when political parties are strong enough to be able to safely democratize and effectively remain in power. Am I understanding that right?

Dan Slater

I wouldn’t go as so far to say it always works best. So, we want democracy and democratization to give us a variety of things. One thing we want it to do is we want it to give us the kind of full panoply of rights and liberties, constraints on the executive, transparency, all of these things that we think should come with democracy. We also want democracy to provide more political inclusion. We want it to provide a sense that political change is possible. That when government underperforms, that we can vote people out of office. There’s a lot of things we want democracy to protect.

So, echoing what Mike Miller says and in a lot of ways Miller’s book is more ambitious than ours. It’s got kind of amazing global data and he really tries in one kind of framework to say he can make sense of both democracy through weakness and democracy through strength. We see them as very different trajectories with different implications. So, one way we note in the book is with this comparison of South Korea and the Philippines, both of which had these pretty dramatic democratic transitions in the 1980s, but very different types. In the Philippines, quite famously, you get the People Power Movement. Ferdinand Marcos is removed as President. The Marcos’s are now, of course, back in power. That’s another story, but it only kind of reinforces our point in a way.

South Korea democratized at the same time, but it’s through the military and the ruling party that that’s very closely tied to the military saying let’s hold free and fair elections. We think the opposition will split. We think we can win these elections and they did. So, at that moment we might say, ‘Okay, well the Filipinos, I mean, they had a real democratic transition, because they threw the guy out. They had this massive protest and the opposition is now in power. The regime is fallen. There’s democracy for you. In South Korea, well, that doesn’t really count. Like it’s barely democratization.’

But obviously, you look at things three plus decades down the road and I don’t think anybody would say that democracy has gone better in the Philippines than in South Korea. So, this is not to say that, ‘Well, everyone should do it like South Korea.’ Because, first of all, most places can’t do it like South Korea did. They don’t have the institutional strength. They don’t have the strong state, strong party. They don’t have the strong economy to make democratization through strength possible in the first place. I definitely don’t want to create the impression that democracy through weakness, like what we saw in the Philippines, is necessarily going to be somehow less optimal or it’s going to be a worse outcome.

I think there are ways that democracy through weakness can lead to very liberating and stabilizing outcomes and there are ways democracy through strength can as well. But the first step is just to say, democratization does not require the collapse of the regime. It doesn’t require the collapse of the economy. So, just recognizing that historical possibility and really to me the frequency with which this is how things have worked in Asia in particular is just an important corrective as we look at places like China today and as we think about prospects for democratization around the world.


Yeah, and you’re right that I was wrong when I said democratization works best. I think a better term would have been stable and even that’s a little bit questionable, because like you said, you can have stable processes of democratization through weakness. But as your book and some of your other research has shown democratization is often more stable when you have democratization through strength because the state is already established. You don’t have to recreate it. But at the same time, it does have issues.

I’ve had James Loxton on the podcast before and he’s talked about authoritarian successor parties and I think that that really compliments a lot of the work that you’ve done. Because Golkar would be just the definition of an authoritarian successor party It existed within the authoritarian regime, transitions into the democratic regime, and has significant strength and performs well right out the gate within the democratic regime.

Dan Slater

So, Joe Long, and I wrote a chapter for the edited volume that Loxton and Mainwaring did Life after Dictatorship on these authoritarian successor parties and what we did there is talk about Taiwan, South Korea and Indonesia. We call the chapter “Game for Democracy.” That’s a little bit of a riff off the work that my good friend and colleague Michael Albertus and Victor Menaldo did. Their term was gaming democracy. So, they’ve got really, I think it’s a terrific set of work about how military regimes, especially but not only military regimes will sort of game democracy. Chile is kind of the ultimate example. You put in place a military written constitution and basically limit the possibilities for democratic change once democracy comes. This is of course very consistent with Mike Miller’s argument. The less change there’s going to be the more likely you are to democratize.

I think we go a little bit further. I think places like Taiwan, South Korea, and then Indonesia is a tougher case, but I think still an informative one. These are places where very robust democracy came about and it did in part because it wasn’t just that the KMT or the ruling party in South Korea or the military in South Korea were gaming democracy. They were game for democracy. Golkar in Indonesia was game for democracy. They actually put in all the rules that you would expect a democracy to have and they did compete in elections. All three of these places have been basically free and fair, there’ve been peaceful transfers of power, and they all have flaws, but you know what democracy doesn’t. Moreover, I don’t think those flaws are necessarily because of the way democracy came about.

I mean, authoritarian legacies loom large and this is a point Anna Gryzmala-Busse made 20 years ago. Some of the legacies of political experience the communist parties had in Eastern Europe ironically made them more effective and helpful democratic actors than those that didn’t. So, one of the points here is that what gets built up under authoritarianism has huge implications for how democracy works. It’s a lot more complicated than the stronger the authoritarians are the worse democracy is going to be. So, it’s not just our work, but Miller’s work, Loxton’s work, Albertus and Menaldo’s work and Gryzmala-Busse’s work. Hopefully, we’re all giving some insights into authoritarian regimes and the implications of how democracy is likely to come about and what kind of democracy you’re likely to get if it does.


Yeah, I think that’s something I’ve really been working through on the podcast. The fact that democratization and democracy itself are very complex. Sometimes they’re working in counterintuitive ways and it’s difficult to always piece together all the different facets. It doesn’t work the way that you always expect. But to bring it back to the idea of Golkar as a political party, we’ve been talking a lot about just the theory and the concepts. But we’ve got a real case here where a political party is transitioning to democracy. Like you said, they’re continuing to govern democratically. Did they continue to show any authoritarians tendencies? Why did they continue to govern democratic?

Dan Slater

Well, the big story Joe Wong and I try to tell here is that the reason that they stuck with it is because they could win. A big piece of the puzzle here is the military. In fact, the military, and the contrast with Egypt or with Myanmar is particularly striking here, but the military basically sees that its interests can be served without having to have reserved seats in parliament. The political parties that are actually winning elections are perfectly comfortable with the military.

In fact, in a lot of ways because political parties are so divided and competitive with each other and Marcus Mitzner, my colleague at ANU in Australia is really, really great on this point, that allows the military to keep playing a pretty big role in politics because political parties keep inviting them and using them as muscle in various ways in some of their disputes. So, whether you’re talking about the old ruling party or the old military, they basically see that what we call stability confidence is basically fulfilled. I mean, things look a lot more stable under early democracy like once you get into the early 2000s than they did at the end of the dictatorship. I mean, Indonesia was falling apart at the end of the Suharto regime.

So, once they got through the initial period of ethnic violence, obviously economic recovery was a huge problem, East Timor splits. They allow East Timor to split and I do think part of what’s going on here is just the moment in world historical time. In the late 1990s, democracy was clearly in the ascendance. So, it makes some sense to some degree that these old ruling elites in Indonesia were more willing to countenance democracy because it seemed to be the way things were going in the world.

But basically, what we call the victory confidence and the stability confidence of the regime was fulfilled. And it’s not just Indonesia. This is again what we saw in Japan and South Korea. We saw it in Taiwan. We see how the absence of victory confidence led to the collapse of democracy in Malaysia. So, it’s really consistent with Miller’s point that when you hold these elections, you’ll stick with it if you don’t expect to fair badly. If you do expect a fair badly, when you have the strength to hold on things might not go as well.


Why did people continue to vote for Golkar? Was it because of the reputation of the economic growth in the past? Because at the moment of democratization, there was obviously an economic crisis. That’s what spurred on the process. That’s what pushed out Suharto. Why did voters continue to support Golkar?

Dan Slater

Yeah, I think I would situate it in the broader point that voters continued to support. Period. Okay. So, think about. So, under The New Order there were three political parties. There was Golkar and then they allowed one, basically, Islamic opposition party, the PPP, and they allowed one sort of nationalists non-Islamist political party, the PDI. Then you have the other kind of key fact about Indonesia is it’s got the two largest Islamic social organizations in the world. You have the Muhammadiyah which is largely urban and you have the Nahdlatul Ulama or the NU which is more rural, at least on average. So, basically here are these five kind of streams of politics coming forward and basically the five parties with the vast majority of the vote in 1999 come from those five streams.

So, people keep voting for the three parties that existed under the New Order and these are parties with a lot of electoral experience and they went back and voted for the parties that emerged to represent these two large Islamic social organizations. So, there’s nothing new under the sun. Right? Like everything that happens in 1999, at least for starters, is from those five historically emergent groups and parties from those. So, Golkar doesn’t really do a lot worse than they did when they were the dominant party. They finished second and then in 2004, they even finished first. But it’s a very fragmented party system. They’re not getting anything close to the majority of the vote. And what you have in Golkar is a lot of very experienced politicians, people with experience in the bureaucracy, people with backgrounds in the military. These are very well-known familiar figures.

In Indonesia, as elsewhere in this region that we call developmental Asia where we’ve had decades of rapid economic growth, people tend to prize the idea of, ‘Well, do people know how to govern? Do they know how to run the economy? So, it’s developmental reputation if you will and in a lot of cases, lots of parts of the country, just pure clientelism there. Just the fact that politicians there have a reputation for bringing home the goods. They’re able to do quite well.

In some ways, Golkar’s strength is understated by its own results, because then things start fragmenting, especially once you introduce direct presidential elections after 2004. So, that allows a bunch of new parties to pop up as sort of vehicles for Presidents and aspiring Presidents. When you get that you get a bunch of new parties, but it’s almost entirely from the Corpus of Golkar from which these other parties emerge. Because it’s a lot of former Golkar figures.

So, again, if you’re the military or if you’re the business class or whoever, you know who these people are. It’s not like all kinds of new faces popping up. So, the old elite basically hang on. You know I was once at a conference, I think it was 2001, and someone was really criticizing Indonesian democratization and saying, ‘This isn’t democracy. It’s just the old elites who have just reinvented themselves.’ Well, that’s kind of what democracy often is. It is the old elites reinventing themselves. They did have to reinvent themselves and they did have to rule in a fundamentally different way. So, the change is real. I think without question.


So, you kind of hinted at one of the things that puzzles me. Because when we say Golkar, held on to power they haven’t won a presidential election. Like they still exist. It’s still a functional political party. It’s part of the ruling coalition today. But it isn’t the dominant party within that ruling coalition. When you say that they won, you’re saying that they won legislative elections and they had a large legislative presence, right?

Dan Slater

Well, they’ve also been either the dominant or one of the dominant parties in the executive as well. They get there through the cabinet. Essentially, the cabinet serves as this kind of like gilded bridge between the parliament and the executive. Because they are experienced politicians, experienced bureaucrats, and they kind of know how the machinery works initially, what Golkar was able to do after the elections in 1999, even though they didn’t have the presidency, they get more cabinets than anybody else. So, just continuously after every election, they play the game so they are in the ruling coalition. They are consistently and they have only for very, very brief snippets of time been in opposition. So, they have been able, along with other major parties, essentially to share power through these power sharing arrangements. So, they lose elections, but they don’t lose power.

That’s part of the trick of what Golkar has been able to do. I think Jamie Loxton used the term diaspora. This diaspora of elites who used to be part of Golkar who then go to other political parties or they might not be party members at all, but they are able to get cabinet seats. So, at the elite level there’s a lot of chumminess in Indonesia which I think partly accounts for the country’s relative stability and democratic survival albeit also some of the problems with democratic quality. Because to the extent that the elite is really chummy, it can lead to less inclusion for society across class lines.


Yeah, and there are a lot of issues with democracy within Indonesia. Freedom House rates it as partly free. It’s not considered free. Can you tell us a little bit about what makes Indonesia a hard place for democracy to thrive?

Dan Slater

Basically, every theory we have in comparative politics would suggest that Indonesia is an unlikely place for democracy to thrive. It grew rapidly during the authoritarian period, but is still a lower middle-income country. It’s incredibly ethnically diverse. If you believe such arguments about religion, it’s the largest Muslim country in the world. I think that that’s a deeply flawed theory, but it’s a correlation. So, let’s take it seriously for the moment at least. It’s historically had a lot of separatist sentiment, regional rebellions, which I’ve tried to show in other work often provides the kind of ideal pretext for the military to get involved in politics. It’s not in a neighborhood full of democracies. Southeast Asia has always been a region of the world with a lot more autocracy than democracy.

So, all these things and then the fact that democracy came about through this colossal economic crash which as Stephen Haggard and Bob Kaufman have shown when democracy arises through economic crisis, it’s a more fragile affair. So, it had all these strikes against it. So, this is where the volume by Scott Mainwaring and Tarek Masoud, Democracy in Hard Places, comes in, they quite rightly see Indonesia as an unlikely place that has certainly outperformed our theoretical expectations. So, it should always situate our kind of report card, if you will, of Indonesian democracy against that backdrop of all of the things that we would expect to at a minimum reduce democratic quality and more likely make it unlikely for democracy to gain any traction in Indonesia at all.


Do you think polarization is the biggest threat to Indonesian democracy today?

Dan Slater

No, I don’t think polarization is the biggest threat to Indonesian democracy. I think that the country is certainly more polarized than it has been. There is polarization that has taken place between somewhat of a more assertive and ascendant Islamic block in Indonesian politics to some degree and the old kind of Sukarnoist, nationalists led by the PDIP, the old Nationalist Party led by the current President Joko Widodo or Jokowi. So, there is more polarization than there used to be. But I also think that at the level of political parties, certainly, basically every party has proven, willing to work with every other political party.

There are some personality disputes which make it hard for the PDIP to work with Partai Demokratwhich is the party of the former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono or SBY. At times the PDIP and the party that’s called the PKS, the most Islamist party won’t work together, because of ideology.

But basically, other than those small exceptions, these parties are used to sharing power and what we saw with Jokowi in the most recent election was he picked a very conservative Islamic cleric as his vice president. A lot of people were up in arms and a lot of people said this is a betrayal of what people, I think, wrongly called secularism in Indonesia. I don’t think Indonesia has secularism. You have to be religious. You have to believe in a singular God in Indonesia. So, I wouldn’t call it secular, but at least the idea that it’s not an Islamic state. It’s a Muslim country predominantly, but not an Islamic state.

So, people saw it as a betrayal, but it helped Jokowi win the election. It helped him tamp down some of the polarization which was really looking like it could erupt. So, he swept to just a massive victory in central and east Java where the Nahdlatul Ulama, the organization I just mentioned, and from which the vice-president comes. He won just in this enormous landslide which allowed him to hold off a much more illiberal challenger.

So, I don’t think it’s polarization in society that is the biggest threat. I think it’s essentially the threat of what we see around the world which is these strong man leaders who can become popular and basically say, ‘Elect me and I’ll do things my way. I’ll make sure good people get good things and the bad people get punished.’ You get a figure more like a Duterte or Putin or Trump who kind of rise to power with no commitment to democracy whatsoever particularly to the rights for minorities that needs to come with democracy, certainly not for the kinds of constraints on executive power that have to come with democracy. I think that’s the greater, more proximate danger to Indonesian democracy, like democracies elsewhere.


So, everything I read about the 2019 election was interesting because Joko Widodo was still seen as the more democratic presence. But at the same time, he’s also seen as what you just described as a strong man leader with some real flaws when you’re trying to look for somebody to represent liberal democracy. Can you tell us a little bit more about the current president Joko Widodo?

Dan Slater

So, Jokowi is somewhat of an exception to this rule when I said old elites keep hanging on. Well, eventually, over time, once you get to 2014, once you’re 15 years passed the first election, here for the first time you get someone who is not an insider during the authoritarian period rise into the presidency. He did so by being a very, very popular mayor and then a very, very popular governor and just developing a reputation for having a real popular touch.

He wears this checkered shirt and he goes out. He’ll wade in the floods and he just goes. He’s an incredible retail politician and Indonesians absolutely love for their politicians to treat them like they matter. Because most of them don’t. Take one vignette here. I was once doing interviews at the parliament building in Jakarta in the early 2000s and one thing that I was told there was it’s really hard to convince people in parliament that when they’re on recess that they should go back to their districts and talk to voters. Because they’re like, ‘This is my vacation. Why would I go back to my district and keep working?’ So, the disconnect between the political elite and ordinary people in Indonesia is huge.

I think this is true in a lot of quote-unquote developing countries. I mean, it’s really good to be an elite. The difference between you as an elite and ordinary people is so vast. That elites really appreciate their elite status. So, they don’t spend a lot of time mucking around with ordinary people. Well, Jokowi is nothing like that. Jokowi absolutely gets out in the mix and he’s Mr. Photo Op. But I think very sincerely his passion has always sort of been economic development and his passion is trying to help Indonesia just do a little better, just be a little better off. So, the key with Jokowi is he doesn’t care all about democracy. He cares about development. He is there to try to run the economy in a way the country will get wealthier, closer to first world status, that kind of thing.

Democracy is how he got there, but it’s just not what concerns him. So, he has shown very, very uneven, inconsistent support for liberal rights, because of his fear of the mobilization of political Islam against him. It has made him very, very reliant on the military for political support. So, the military’s role in Indonesia has only gotten larger over the past 10 years or so. So, ironically, we had a former general as president from 2004 to 2014 and now you had a civilian from 2014 to the present, but the military has actually been politically stronger since the old general retired, since he left the office after his two terms were up. Because now you have someone who needs the military or perceives he needs the military for backing.

So, the state apparatus was built in a very authoritarian period. It has a certainly managerial at best, bureaucratic at times coercive view of how to manage society. He’s largely let the state do the state’s thing. In Indonesia, that means in a lot of cases a lot of human rights abuses and this is just not been Jokowi’s concern. So, there’s definitely been democratic backsliding under his watch and he’s lost a lot of support since his reelection, a lot of the mass support that helped carry him to office.

So, it really was a pretty big betrayal that he gets reelected on this wave of. democratic sentiment, to be honest, trying to keep Prabowo Subianto out of power. He prevails, but then he basically turns on his supporters as well. Says we need certain laws to make it easier to extract natural resources, then make it a crime to insult the president and these kinds of things.

Basically, this law comes from parliament and from the bureaucracy. He’s willing to support these things, because he wants to keep other elites happy and on board, so he can run the country how he wants to run it and protesters are not something he’s going to take too kindly to.


So, I came across an article by Burhanuddin Muhtadi who described Jokowi as being in a triple minority position. He wrote, “He was supported by a government coalition that did not have a parliamentary majority; he was a marginal figure in his own party, with less party authority than previous presidents… and he was very much a newcomer to the national stage.” I think that Jokowi may not have been as much of a liberal Democrat in his heart as some of his supporters wanted him to be, but his position of weakness in the presidency also makes him rely upon some of the institutions that are oftentimes the legacies of authoritarianism.

Dan Slater

You know, it’s a curious thing about Indonesian politics that every president has felt incredibly insecure and this leads them to sort of share power very widely and cut all kinds of deals to help protect their position. So, even SBY, the president from 2004-2014, he wins two absolutely massive landslides. He’s still utterly paranoid he’s going to be impeached or something’s going to happen. Jokowi also wins. You know, these are not razor thin wins. He wins both elections comfortably. I mean, Burhanuddin is right. You can come up with all kinds of ways that Jokowi is sort of a minority, but he’s a majority in the most important way. He’s got the majority of the voters behind him.

So, why is it that Indonesia presidents don’t perceive that the mandate of winning a majority in an election doesn’t seem to translate into a honeymoon or anything? It’s just a very peculiar feature of Indonesian politics. So, yes, Jokowi has felt insecure. Again, he reached out to bring in a Vice-President who was as opposite as you could imagine as a way of trying to make sure he wasn’t going to lose too badly among the more pious among the population. He brought the candidate he defeated, Prabowi Subianto, in and made him defense minister. So, you defeat someone in an election then you give them one of the best positions in the cabinet.

These are the kind of deals he’s cut and it would be one thing if we could say it’s some quirk of Jokowi, but they’ve all done it. Megawati did it before. Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter, she did it. SBY did it. Jokowi has done it. They’ve all done it. So, there’s something going on in Indonesia, much deeper than the personalities or the kind of quirky insecurities of particular people.


You just mentioned Prabowo Subianto.

Dan Slater



He was the opponent of Jokowi in the presidential election. At least the one that had the most support. Why did he represent such a threat to democracy? Why did he scare so many people that believe in liberal democracy?

Dan Slater

Well, I think the parallel here with the Marcos restoration in the Philippines is kind of informative. So Prabowo comes from an enormous amount of money. A very rich family in the military. He married Suharto’s daughter during the New Order. He gets himself this plum position as basically the top military official in Jakarta and positions himself beautifully in the late 1990s to seize power if necessary. So, when things become unsteady, Prabowo very much wants to follow his father-in-law’s path to power, which is instability, declare a coup, take over because you’re the guy in Jakarta.

So, his fingerprints were all over the secret military operations to kidnap people, to destroy property. There were massive rapes of ethnic Chinese minority women. Again, Prabowo’s troops’ fingerprints were all over this kind of thing basically trying to destabilize things even more to create a pretext for the military to stay in power as Suharto was falling. He also has a terrible track record in East Timor. Again, just to give you a sense on his background, he was discharged from the military after the Suharto regime fell. I mean, what do you have to do to get discharged from the Indonesian military? How bad is your human rights record? Right? It’s a pretty impressive feat.

So, he has a certain kind of charisma. A real kind of strong man charism. Clearly lacking in anything resembling democratic values, principles, commitments, what have you. When he lost in 2014, he screamed fraud. He challenged the election results. He was absolutely thumped in 2014. He didn’t come close to winning. It should be readily familiar to people following what was going around the world. It’s a particular style. A certain strong man populist, no respect for institutions. I alone am the savior. This is the kind of persona that he has. So, compared to Jokowi’s very humble style, his man of the people out in the streets, Prabowo is quite different from that.

I think this is a lesson we’re relearning with the election of Bongbong Marcos in the Philippines. It’s not just that people with bad track records in the authoritarian period are going to necessarily do the same thing again. It’s that when these people come back and when they win elections, it reshapes history. It reshapes the nation’s identity. This is why we saw massive election rallies trying to defeat Marcos in the Philippines or the huge rallies we saw for Jokowi. They just try to keep Prabowo out of power. It’s because in these countries, democracy is part of the national life.

Part of what makes people feel like a real patriotic Filipino or Indonesian is their track record. Like, ‘We saved the country. We went out in the streets and we rid ourselves of this dictator. Like that’s who we are. It’s what we do. So, it creates this real loss of self, like a real threat to your own identity as a people when you lose that and when that gets taken away by these kinds of elections.  So, it’s kind of relitigating the past. It’s a very brutal form of erasure that Filipinos are going through right now and the Indonesians were staring down the barrel of in 2014 and 2019.

But on both occasions, the majority of Indonesian voters came up. They turned out. They weren’t intimidated by anyone on Prabowo’s side of things. They voted in droves and they managed to keep someone in power who, while not a great defender of democracy, is not a great offender. At least he’s not out to destroy democracy. It’s just kind of a non-issue for him. He’s like ‘just let me govern.’ So, sins of omission versus sins of commission. In our age of democratic backsliding this is what we can hope for. Just give us someone who’s not going to actively try to burn things down. Right? That counts as a success nowadays.


So, this is what’s really remarkable about Indonesia. Since the 2019 election, is that Jokowi invites Prabowo into his cabinet. You’ve already mentioned this, but I want to read a quote from your recent chapter where you write, “By subsequently inviting Prabowo himself to serve as his defense minister, Jokowi signaled with abundant clarity that his second term would be defined by the pursuit of economic development and political stability, not the continued defense of democracy.” It’s a striking quote, because it comes back to a lot of the things that we’ve been saying. That he’s got a very technopopulist agenda. He gets the support of people who believe in democracy, yet he’s not necessarily it’s defendor. It’s amazing to imagine somebody winning a presidential election and inviting their opponent to join their cabinet.

I just can’t imagine Joe Biden reaching out to Donald Trump and saying we’d like you to be Secretary of Homeland Security. That’s literally what he just did. Because Prabowo isn’t just in the cabinet. He’s the defense minister which I would think would be a dangerous position to put somebody like him into. What does it say about Indonesian democracy that this type of olive branch has happened?

Dan Slater

Well, one thing is that Indonesia shows in a really intriguing way that just because you have democracy doesn’t mean you have real opposition. Some kind of organized, consistent programmatic opposition doesn’t arise just because you have democratic elections. That basically elites can compete and then they can cooperate and to some extent that’s essential. Right? You have to cooperate on allowing the general rules of the game to stay in place. You have to learn to lose as my coauthor, Joe Wong and our former advisor, Edward Friedman, put it famously, ‘Learning to lose is key to making democracy come about.’ So, you need some level of cooperation. But in Indonesia, it’s just off the charts.

The lengths to which what I’ve called promiscuous power-sharing or what we call party cartels. The idea that after the election everyone’s up for sharing power with anybody and everybody and allowing them to share executive power. So, as an Indonesian voter, and voters, I think, have been very patient with this, you can vote for people, but you really can’t vote against people. Because at the end of the day, voters propose, elites dispose. So, elites will decide who to share power with. I think that’s a very complicated phenomenon, but I think it has roots in the fact that under the Suharto regime the idea was there’s lots to go around. I’m going to share. So long as you’re not one of these difficult communist types or Islamists or overly liberal and democratic then you can share. You can be part of it.

So, a lot of networks arose during the Suharto regime that survived. There’s just a praxis of politics in which consensus rather than opposition versus government. So, the fact that Jokowi appoints Prabowo, his defense minister, was sort of like a particularly kind of striking sin in a way. But it was by no means unprecedented in the sense that every president wins and then tries to craft these vast oversized coalitions. Some out of insecurity, some feeling that they won’t be able to government unless they have it. Then in the case of Prabowo it’s like there are certain actors who could be dangerous in power or they could be dangerous out of power.

You know, LBJ has a very colorful quote about that: Inside the tent versus outside the tent. The idea being, if he’s inside the tent, then maybe he’ll be hurting other people and not you. It’s a pretty common political logic. It just doesn’t come to fruition like it does in Indonesia as consistently elsewhere which is something that I’ve puzzled over for decades. It’s a really interesting phenomenon. I think it’s something people should look at more.


So, Dan, as we look to conclude, in your book, you divide out the cases that you study into four separate groups of three.

Dan Slater



So, Indonesia is classified with Myanmar and Thailand. Both had phases of democratization. I don’t want to say that they necessarily made the full transition, especially Myanmar did not. Stil, they liberalized their political systems. But both of them have pulled back. Indonesia is the one example from that cluster that has not done so especially at that level. It’s a democracy that’s in a hard place to be a democracy looking forward. Do you have hope for Indonesia or are you more pessimist?

Dan Slater

I have hope. I mean the hope that I have is… This might sound like a cliche, but in Indonesia it’s really, really true. My hope rests in the Indonesian people and the voters. I mean, the voters, they show up. The voters have been the ones to defend democracy. They’ve been the ones to reject the most anti-pluralistic candidates, not all Indonesian voters, but a slim majority. But they’ve been managing to do it. I think Indonesians have an incredibly kind of muscular, powerful sense of just wanting to hold their politicians to account. They really want responsiveness. They really want to reward politicians who will pay attention to them, take them seriously, and listen to them. I think that has led to the sprouting up around the country in lots of mayors and governors who are very, very responsive to Indonesian voters.

There’s a new generation of politicians a al Jokowi and Prabowo is getting old. So, I think that if we can win a couple more elections this way and get someone who again is at least not someone who’s going to just basically try to rule with an iron fist, then I do think you have a civil society. It is certainly stricken with polarization, but I think that Indonesia as I write about it, it’s got a pretty inclusive sense of nationalism. It’s not a place where if you’re not Muslim or you’re not Javanese that you’re just automatically a second-class citizen. This is true in a lot of places. I think it is one reason that democracy falls apart in a lot of places. So, there is raw material there to help democracy survive.

So, I am hopeful, but obviously it shouldn’t be necessary to lay out all the reasons to worry and all the reasons that things can go wrong. Thailand and Myanmar are pretty natural examples. But I guess one thing I’d say about Thailand and Myanmar is those are both places where the military comes back. In Indonesia, the military plays a big role in governance. It doesn’t really need to come back until someone tries to push them out. That leads to some low-quality democracy, but it does mean that democracy as we have in Indonesia does survive on crutches if you will. But it is still moving along. Here, I think you have to go back to the authoritarian period.

You have to go back to the fact that of those three countries, it was only Indonesia that really generated a really strong, powerful, nationally sweeping ruling party which was then able to carry the torch in democracy and mean that old regime elites were able to not lose too much with really opening up the political system dramatically. That political party development, even though Indonesia has got all these other quote-unquote deficits or these hindrance to democratization, ironically, the fact that it had a strong authoritarian rule has been one of the key elements in making sure it doesn’t go the way of a Thailand or Myanmar. Democracy keeps limping along and hopefully will at least continue to limp if nothing else.

Well, thank you so much, Dan, for joining me today. You’ve really opened up my eyes to the way how Indonesian politics works. The way how its democracy functions. Thank you so much for that and congratulations on the publication of your book in a few months.

Dan Slater

Thank you.


Please let Joseph Wong know that I really enjoyed it as well and thank you so much for writing it.

Dan Slater

Thanks and thanks for paying attention to Asia, paying attention to Indonesia, paying attention to democracy. There’s not enough attention on these things in the world. So, it’s really great that you’re doing this and it was a pleasure to get to talk at some length with you about it. This is important stuff. I hope people realize it.

Key Links

From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern Asia by Dan Slater and Joseph Wong

Democracy in Hard Places edited by Scott Mainwaring and Tarek Masoud

Follow Dan Slater on Twitter @SlaterPolitics

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Donald Horowitz on the Formation of Democratic Constitutions

Sebastian Strangio Explains the Relationship Between China and Southeast Asia

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Email the show at jkempf@democracyparadox.com

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