Unrepresented, unheard. Is Indonesia an inclusive democracy?

The country’s diverse religious and ethnic minorities can answer that question: no.

Unrepresented, unheard. Is Indonesia an inclusive democracy? AFP Photo/Chaideer Mahyuddin

Voting, to borrow from the book “Love Wins” by Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell, “is the worst way to protect minority rights.” Unfortunately, voting has become a core mechanism in Indonesia’s democracy today. Voting-based or majoritarian democracy is also the reason behind Indonesia’s continuous failure to include minorities in its politics.

Let’s take a look at Indonesia’s political system through the lens of a basic theory in political science: a “political system framework” by the late American political scientist David Easton. Easton saw a political system as shaped by its units and their interaction. Demands and support from people are accounted as inputs, which then are processed by actors in the decision-making process, resulting in an output that is thrown back to the people so that there can be feedback, in form or demands and support – inputs that will restart the cycle.

In Indonesia, demands and support from the public are channeled through political parties or civil society organizations. The actors involved in the decision-making process are those who are in power, including the executive, legislative and judicial branches. As a result of a series of constitutional amendments after Indonesia began its political reform in 1998 (reformasi), the legislative branch has the final say over what passes as law in the country. There are two chambers of Parliament in Indonesia, the House of Representatives and the Regional Representatives Council, the first having more authority over the legislative process. In short, the institutional design of Indonesia’s democracy ensures that the public’s voice is heard. People matter, since they elect their representatives, who should listen to their demands, and support and fight for policies that benefit their constituents. However, the very same system perpetuates a tyranny of the majority, where only the loudest and biggest voices are heard, hence influencing the course of politics. You might be there, having your voice heard, but when you’re a minority, you don’t really count. 

Skewed against minorities

To be born into a country’s majority is a privilege. People lucky enough to be born as such seem to underestimate how much identity matters. Asian-American writer Celeste Ng puts it eloquently: “I’ve always been political, because when you’re in any marginalized group, your existence is politicized for you, whether you like it or not.”

One example in Indonesia is the controversial 2008 anti-pornography law. During deliberation, the bill triggered debate over its perceived bias toward certain beliefs and values, hence disrespecting traditional cultures, diversity and minorities. 

The law is also biased against women, as it generally sees women as the source of sexual arousal that leads to so-called pornographic behavior. When the bill was about to pass, lawmakers from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle and the Prosperous Peace Party walked out in protest. People in the provinces of Bali, Papua and West Papua also opposed the law, considering it an insult to their traditional cultures. “Balinese believe the human body has an aesthetic value, while the porn law supporters view it as the source of sin and lust. This is the major difference between us and them,” said Gede Sugilanus, a representative of the Bali People’s Component, an advocacy group, summing up the clashing points of view between the Muslim majority in Parliament and minority groups including Hindus and Christians. The anti-pornography law illustrates how the system will more often disadvantage minorities and how it works as a zero-sum game, one without compromise let alone consensus. Not only is the voting mechanism biased against minorities, the composition of Parliament itself is troublesome as minorities are underrepresented. This is a latent problem that persists to this day. 

In July 2017, Human Rights Watch released a statement calling for the Indonesian government to scrap a bill it claimed “reinforces existing regulations that discriminate against religious minorities,” which is expected to be debated by the end of this year. Not only does the bill reinforce a troublesome and controversial blasphemy law that upended national politics last year, it may make it even more difficult for minorities to get permission to construct houses of worship. In Indonesia, construction of a new place of worship requires an official permit from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and/or a permit from the neighborhood where it is to be built. Local governments and communities often use this requirement to prevent new buildings or to outright deny permit applications. Their argument is that it is not about religious freedom but upholding the law.

Indonesia is often lauded for its religious and ethnic diversity. However, there is a dominant ethnicity and a dominant religion. The Javanese are the largest ethnic group in Indonesia, accounting for 40 percent of the population. The second largest group is the Sundanese at 16 percent, which is not even half the number of Javanese. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, accounting for 87 percent of the local population – despite not being an Islamic state or following Shariah. Only one in every eight Indonesians is non-Muslim, a small percentage that is divided up among Christians, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists and Confucians – the five religions aside from Islam that are acknowledged by the state. To put it simply, if you are not a Muslim Javanese man, you are a minority in Indonesia.

The current mechanism and composition of the system is discriminatory against people like me.

To put it simply, if you are not a Muslim Javanese man, you are a minority in Indonesia.

If ethnic Chinese Christians are considered a double minority, then I am a triple minority. First, I am a woman, who despite having the same demographic proportion as men, suffer from a lack of representation elsewhere. Second, I am not Muslim. I am Buddhist, who make up only 0.72 percent of the population. Third, I am Indonesian of Chinese descent, locally known as Tionghoa, who make up 1.2 percent of the population. Although ethnic Chinese have been living in the country since before there was an Indonesia, we are still considered outsiders, or non-pribumi (non-native).

As a triple minority, I do not feel I truly have a representative in Parliament. Out of 560 members in the House of Representatives, only 97, or 17 percent, are women; the minimum quota is 30 percent, but it has never been achieved in the country’s history. Out of these 97, only 13 are non-Muslims. The General Elections Commission does not list ethnicity in its data, so I cannot say how many people of Chinese descent are in Parliament. Only three Parliament members are Buddhist, but they are all men and should not in any way be considered as true representatives of me. Minority women are underrepresented despite being about 6 percent of Indonesia’s population. The ideal number of seats for minority women should be 36, almost three times the actual number of 14. While there are efforts in Indonesia to ensure that women’s voices are heard and represented, there is close to no effort to ensure that minority women are represented. 

Not everything boils down to gender, ethnicity and religion, but there are certainly universal issues that transcend identity. But Indonesia is no longer the tolerant, pluralistic nation that it prides itself to be.

Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, along with the Indonesian Survey Agency, reported that more than half of Indonesians did not feel comfortable with ethnic Chinese leadership, a sentiment that transcended education level and wealth. There is also growing sentiment among right-wing Muslims to reject non-Muslim leaders. Both racial and religious sentiment have been used as weapons since the 2014 presidential election, when now-President Joko Widodo was rumored to be an ethnic Chinese Christian, despite being a Javanese Muslim. 

These sentiments were again exploited and reached a peak during the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, with mass street protests by conservative Islamic groups against Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is Chinese Christian. He lost the election and then was thrown in prison for two years on concocted blasphemy charges. The protests were viewed as an attempt to politically weaken President Joko, who was Purnama’s chief political ally.

‘Majoritarian democracy’ with inadequate minority representation is inherently dangerous to the future of the nation.

Considering the highly divisive political atmosphere, an open discussion on identity and identity politics is urgently needed, and a change in the current political system is essential. “Majoritarian democracy” with inadequate minority representation is inherently dangerous to the future of the nation. First, the current political system has generated several policies that disadvantage minorities. Second, the lack of minority representation and majoritarian tendencies are a form of discrimination against fellow Indonesian citizens who have fulfilled their responsibilities to the state and yet receive unfair treatment in return. Third, the system is anything but inclusive, betraying the spirit of loyalty shared between various ethnic groups in the early decades of Indonesia’s nation-building. Fourth, the current system goes against everything the nation stands for, in particular the state motto, “Unity in Diversity.”

Tweaks for a better democracy

Because the problem lies in the institutional design of our democracy, a call for politically engineering the system is relevant. According to author and academic Timothy D Sisk, the central question of political engineering is designing institutions and practices that incentivize ethnic groups to mediate their differences. However, another key is creating incentive systems that reward and reinforce political leaders who moderate on divisive differences and persuade citizens to compromise.

The second question of political engineering can only be achieved after a more inclusive Parliament is in place. After all, Indonesia’s political system is legislative-heavy. And there’s no pressing need for the president to take minorities into account, as the Parliament is dominated by the majority. Ideally, Indonesian democracy should not be such a majoritarian one, as it is formulated as a consensus-based or consensual democracy. In an article titled “Indonesia versus Fascism,” the country’s founding president, Soekarno, highlighted how voting-based democracy could lead to tyranny by the majority. The emphasis on consensual democracy was obvious in the drafting of Pancasila, the state ideology of pluralism: the first principle was changed at the request of minority groups, who felt that the initial wording was not inclusive to all then-to-be Indonesian citizens.

In a voting-based system, it does not matter whether you have representation; what matters is how much you have. If you’re a minority, your voice is still disregarded in the face of bigger voices. It’s a zero-sum game in which the majority always wins. Consensus, on the other hand, involves compromise. Even if your interests and aspirations are not fully achieved, some are still catered to. Your voice, however small, matters under consensual democracy.

There have been calls by some to return to consensual democracy. However, even consensus will not work effectively if not all people are represented. When not all elements of society are represented, some aspirations are not voiced, let alone considered and catered to in the policy-making process. That begs the question: what is the best way to ensure a system that is inclusive, where all elements of society, especially minorities, are represented and have a say in government?

In a pluralistic society, consociational democracy is often practiced. 

With enough minority representation, it is hoped that Indonesia will have a minority bloc in Parliament, not unlike the Congressional Black Caucus in the United States, which mostly represents African-Americans and is free of political party alignment. This might seem too complicated considering that Indonesia is highly diverse, with many ethnic groups consisting of fewer than 10,000 people. There would be too many representatives in Parliament, as each ethnicity would want one. One solution is to follow the classification system of Indonesia’s Central Bureau of Statistics, which only considers an ethnic group as having more than one million members, while smaller ones are grouped according to their respective islands. 

To refuse change to the current political dynamic is to show that, yes, Indonesia upholds “Unity in Diversity” – but the unity is only a superficial one, achieved by not giving room for minority voices. To refuse the change required for a more inclusive democracy is based on the fear that too many voices and too much representation are a hindrance to a more efficient political system – something like “Unity over Diversity.” True unity in democracy can only be achieved when the diverse are included in the conversation.

Devina Heriyanto is an Indonesian journalist based in Jakarta. She is of Chinese descent and is a Buddhist.

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