Elites, Masses, and Democratic Decline in Indonesia

Prof. Edward Aspinall
Dr. Burhanuddin Muhtadi
Dr. Diego Fossati
Ms. Eve Warburton

Indonesia’s democracy is in decline. Most analysts blame this shift on the actions of illiberal elites; the public, meanwhile, is often cast as a democratic bulwark. Yet, as in other fragile democracies, moments of regression in Indonesia have come at the hands of popular and democratically-elected politicians. To explore whether Indonesia’s democratic decline is merely an elite project, or is also supported from below, our primary objective in this article is to determine whether Indonesia’s political elites and the wider population conceive of democracy in similar terms, and whether they support both electoral aspects of democratic government and its liberal components – checks, balances, and protection of individual liberties. Our second line of inquiry examines whether undemocratic and illiberal attitudes, such that they exist, are evenly distributed across Indonesia’s elected elite, or whether they are concentrated in particular political parties – hence allowing us to identify with greater precision the driving forces of democratic decline. To achieve these two goals, we use a tool that, to our knowledge, has never previously been tried in Indonesia: an elite survey in which we ascertained the views of a representative sample of more than 500 Indonesian politicians drawn from the country’s provincial legislatures. We then compare those survey results with the findings of nationally representative general population surveys. While both populations express overwhelming support for democratic government, we find significant differences between how elites and masses conceive of democracy, and between their level of commitment to liberal norms. Contrary to expectations, we find elected provincial elites are systematically more liberal than voters. These findings challenge widely-held assumptions about the illiberal character of Indonesia’s political class. But they also suggest a public that is either indifferent to, or supportive of, an increasingly illiberal democratic order in Indonesia.