Indonesia’s political parties are the least trusted political institutions in the country. The combination of elite politics and the entrenched presence of business and other vested interests at the highest levels of government make it challenging for political parties to act as guardians of Indonesian democracy.
The latest survey from an Indonesian pollster, Indikator Politik Indonesia, shows that political parties are the institutions with the lowest level of public trust in Indonesia. The 54% rating of ‘moderate (trust)’ in political parties is significantly lower than the Indonesian public’s trust in the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) (93% rating) and the President (85% rating).
This low level of public trust in Indonesia’s political parties can be attributed to two longstanding trends, namely oligarchic politics and party cartels. The former is characterised by the existence of oligarchs, who possess wealth and power and tend to influence political outcomes, including as leaders or prominent power holders in certain political parties.
When oligarchs’ parties join the ruling government’s coalition, their representatives are likely to compete for control over policy making within government agencies. President Joko Widodo (‘Jokowi’) has regrettably paved the way for oligarchs to enter politics since 2014. For instance, former vice-president Jusuf Kalla (senior Golkar politician, and vice president to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as well as Jokowi’s running mate in 2014) and media baron Surya Paloh (chairman of the National Democratic, or Nasdem Party) have joined Jokowi’s inner circle.
In Jokowi’s second term, the oligarchs are even more entrenched. Prabowo Subianto (chairman, Gerindra Party) is the Minister of Defence, Luhut Pandjaitan (senior Golkar politician) is the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment, while Airlangga Hartarto (Golkar chairman) is the Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs.
These oligarchs utilise their political parties to spawn ‘party cartels’, whose practices affect Indonesia’s politics in two distinct ways.
First, these cartels formed a large coalition consisting of seven out of the nine major political parties in the House of Representatives (DPR), thus creating a legislative supermajority. Without significant opposition, this coalition has succeeded in passing at least three controversial bills into laws over the past three years. These include the amendments to the Law on the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) (later Law No. 19/2019) in 2019, the Omnibus Law (later Law No. 11/2020) in 2020, and the bill to relocate the nation’s capital to East Kalimantan (later Law No. 3/2022).
When oligarchs’ parties join the ruling government’s coalition, their representatives are likely to compete for control over policy making within government agencies.
Second, there seems to be a tendency within the coalition to evade public criticism and dissent during the policy-making process by rushing through the passage of bills into law. The majority coalition successfully passed the bill on relocating the nation’s capital in just 42 days, making it apparently the fastest bill passed into law by parliament in Indonesia’s history.
However, the party elites can have conflicting interests, which occasionally spark political backlash. The recent debate on whether to postpone the 2024 General Election or to extend executive and legislative members’ tenures, which was driven by a few elites like the chairman of the National Awakening Party (PKB) Muhaimin Iskandar and Golkar chairman Airlangga Hartarto, enraged many opposition politicians, civil society groups, and academics. Since Widodo and the dominant PDIP have firmly rejected any suggestion of a delay, as have Gerindra and Nasdem, this was a potential crisis in Indonesian democracy that has momentarily been averted.
Ideally, Indonesian elites should consider reforming their political parties and return to serving the people as forums for political communication. Bridging the people’s ideas and aspirations with public policy formulation instead of minimising public feedback channels or rushing public discussion of new laws would be much more inclusive to their constituencies.
In theory, political parties should be the ‘gatekeepers of democracy’ and adhere to constitutional democratic values to preserve Indonesia’s constitution, the rule of law, checks and balances, and political stability. Parties should stay true to the people as the primary stakeholders of a nation’s sovereignty while also acting as pressure groups on the ruling government. Giving too much control to the oligarchs, lacking the political will to commit to institutional checks and balances, while giving little to no space for public consultation would extinguish this gatekeeper role, as Indonesia’s recent experience seems to show.
Calls for more public consultation by Indonesia’s political parties can help to improve citizen engagement and trust in parties while also increasing legitimacy in the policy making process. However, the challenge would be for Indonesia’s oligarch-politicians to genuinely receive feedback without giving in to the urge to hear only views that fit with their political agendas or take actions that ultimately benefit their businesses or interests, instead of Indonesia’s.