global politics, relationally

Maybe We’ve Gotten it Wrong About Democracy…


In the Jakarta Post’s January 2014 “Outlook” section, the deputy defense minister Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin argued that threats to the state are no longer solely military, but rather Indonesian’s good citizens should be alert to threats to the state’s ideology, economy and culture. Indonesian military commander Gen. Moeldoko argued in a speech in February that the greatest threat to Indonesia is neoliberalism, particularly the domination of foreign corporations.

These are not unfamiliar arguments, particularly in Southeast Asia, where “ideology and culture” are sacrosanct. In Thailand, the tripartite state ideology is “Religion, King, Thainess.” In Indonesia the basis of democracy is Pancasila, the five principles—belief in one God, just and civilized humanity, unity of the State, democracy through consensus, and social justice. These are lofty goals, to be sure, but the students in my Democracy and Human Rights class at Universitas Andalas in West Sumatra, Indonesia, tell me that these are attainable goals, and could be met if only they could be left alone, without the expectations of Western powers and interference in “Indonesian” democracy.

Watching the events unfold in Ukraine, Thailand and Venezuela from the vantage point of my Indonesian students has been enlightening.

They argue, as their leaders do, that Western expectations of democracies around the world are misguided and, frankly, arrogant. We’re different, they tell me. We are a collective society, not an individualistic one. Sometimes what’s needed is casino a strong leader, sometimes maybe authoritarianism (like that of Soeharto’s regime) is a necessary precondition to a better society. These sentiments are reflected in the platforms of one of Indonesian’s top political parties, Golkar (established and supported by Soeharto), which argues that the “people” want a return to Soeharto’s New Order institutions. “If we can’t eat or get an education,” one student said to me, “being able to vote isn’t really that important.”

Democratization and the promise of (neo)liberalism have been an important part of Western foreign policies for twenty-five years now. We had high hopes that democratization would take hold in Russia, afterall, but that was soon quelled—and Ukraine didn’t do much better  (yes, yes, the people ousted a dictator, but that’s hardly a “free and fair election,” is it?). This year Indonesia will undertake its third presidential election cycle since the 1998 Reformasi , a promising sign for a new democracy, but the calls for a return to more communal (and Soekarno-esque leftist socialist policies!) belies the promise that neo-liberalism was supposed to bolster democratic reforms.

Twenty-five years is not really a long time in the big scheme of things (although we in IR seem to have based an entire field on the analysis of the 50 years of the Cold War), but enough time to begin questioning its universality. The rest of the world already is.