Democracy – can it be improved?

Is the Western model best, or should another approach be taken?

Democracy – can it be improved?

The April general election in Indonesia which saw President Joko Widodo returned for a second five-year term was a logistical megatrial for the Komisi Pemilihan Umum (General Elections Commission – KPU), and an ordeal for participants.

Around 240,000 candidates jostled for over 20,000 seats in local and national legislatures in the world’s third largest democracy. (India is first, the US second).  

Ben Bland of Australia’s Lowy Institute called it “the most complicated single-day ballot in global history”.  

Although almost 600 of the seven million Indonesian election workers reportedly died from exhaustion, the event was reckoned a success, although the operation may be modified next time round in 2024. Indian parliamentary elections this year were spread across six weeks.

The original Greek idea of democracy (“demos” – commoners, “kratos” – strength) has been around for 2,500 years, it’s still a work in progress. No nation has a mortgage on how best to represent the will of the people, so ensuring voting is fair and equal is a global issue.

Now Indonesians and others have the chance to comment through a neighbor’s parliamentary inquiry. The search for definitions and better ways has spread to Australia, a self-governing democracy since 1901.  

The Senate (the upper house representing the states in the national parliament in Canberra) is holding an open inquiry into Nationhood, National Identity and Democracy and inviting submissions – including from foreign individuals and associations.

The British Economist Intelligence Unit publishes a Democracy Index. This ranks 164 United Nations member states into full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. It does this by measuring pluralism, civil liberties and political cultures.

Indonesia is labeled a flawed democracy, along with neighbors Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. This group also includes the United States, where only 55 per cent got involved in the 2016 elections.

More than 80 per cent of the 193 million eligible Indonesian voters exercised their rights though participation was voluntary. These figures seem to show the republic’s teenage democracy is robust and optimistic despite having the flawed tag.

Indonesia only became a democracy this century after 32 years of the late General Soeharto’s New Order dictatorship, so many questions are bubbling to the surface.

Foremost is this: Is democracy, which comes from a Western cultural tradition, the best model for choosing leaders? The winners are happy, the losers not so, like supporters of the failed presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto.

They claim it’s unfair that a villager laboring in a rice field should have the same single-vote power as a member of the educated elite debating esoteric issues in Jakarta’s high-rise offices.

As outlined in Strategic Review two years ago here a hankering remains for the traditional decision-making systems like musyawarah (consensus after long discussion). That way differences can be resolved without resorting to a binary Yes-No vote.

A decade ago, US social scientist Larry Diamond’s book “The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies throughout the World,” argued that a renewed democratic boom needs “vigorous support of good governance – the rule of law, security, protection of individual rights, and shared economic prosperity – and free civic organizations.” 

Why should a full democracy nation like Australia indulge in a spate of navel gazing?  The riots in Hong Kong show political ideologies can no longer be confined by high border walls when the internet wafts across oceans and immigration controls.

Thousands of Chinese students studying in Australia and raised to believe in the supremacy of a one-party state have been clashing with pro-democracy supporters on Australian streets and campuses. Free-speech issues have been wrenched out of political science tutorials and onto the front pages of mainstream newspapers.

Of the 800,000 overseas students in Australia, 230,000 are from mainland China.

Submissions to the Senate inquiry are not confined to Australian citizens and agencies based Down Under, so psephologists, policy analysts, journalists and others here and elsewhere can make their own points. They do not have to be specific to Australia.

They need to be quick as the closing date is soon.  

Of interest to internationalists are three questions among the many flagged for attention: 

*          What role does globalization and economic interdependence and economic development play in forming or disrupting traditional notions of national identity?

*          What are contemporary notions of cultural identity, multiculturalism and regionalism?

*          The extent to which nation states balance domestic imperatives and sovereignty and international obligations.

The inquiry’s discussion paper to aid submitters can be downloaded here.

The paper states that “around the world, voters seem increasingly dissatisfied with how democratic politics works for them. Public trust in democratic institutions is declining. Notions of national identity, which can be the roots of a democratic community, are changing as our world becomes increasingly interconnected.”

Apart from disillusionment there’s growing disinterest.  The Guardian newspaper recently polled 1,075 voters, finding only 15 per cent follow events in Canberra closely.

A similar number showed no interest in politics, with the rest casual consumers of national affairs. What Australians really like is sport.

The discussion paper adds: “There is a wealth of evidence showing a worrying decline in the level of public trust. In 2007, 86 per cent of Australians were satisfied with how democracy works in Australia. That figure is now 41 per cent. 

“Evidence also suggests that those with the lowest incomes are least satisfied with democracy.”

These issues aren’t limited to the Southern Hemisphere. British researchers have revealed around half of UK voters reckon the big parties and politicians don’t care about the wee folk who put them into power. 

A Pew Research Center study in the US disclosed that only 17 per cent of Americans said they can trust the government in Washington to do the right thing “just about always” or “most of the time”.

Australians won’t be the only people studying the Senate inquiry’s findings due next May. Whether the Australian Parliament or other legislatures will implement any recommendations is another matter.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist based in Malang, East Java Province, who has been writing about Indonesia for the past 22 years.

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  • user

    It should be mentioned that the Australian colonies started gaining self rule in the 1850's. 1901 was when the self governing colonies joined to become a commonwealth. Another point to make is that during this time, various rules were in place to limit voting franchise. Women only were given the votes from 1890's to 1900's (depending on the state). My father was only given the vote in Tasmania in the 1960's because he owned his own house. Aboriginal Australians were only given the vote in 1966, so "full" democracy took time to evolve. Indonesia require a democracy defined and built by Indonesians. But all Indonesians, not just the elites.

    Oct 12, 2019 8:53 am