PUBLISHED:January 10, 2013

Horowitz examines Indonesia’s transition to democracy in new book

Professor Donald L. Horowitz

In his latest book, Constitutional Change and Democracy in Indonesia (Cambridge University Press, 2013), Professor Donald L. Horowitz offers a case study of that nation’s transition to democracy after almost 50 years of authoritarian rule.  The process he describes was insider-dominated and incremental, with elections preceding constitutional change.  By and large, says Horowitz, it was successful; Indonesians have held three free elections and experienced two turnovers of presidential power since the fall of Suharto in 1998, while largely avoiding ethnic polarization and violence.

Indonesia offered a “good story,” Horowitz says, to launch his trilogy of books relating to constitutional design for severely divided societies.  “There is no doubt that it’s a fully-fledged electoral democracy with a very strong constitutional court with, for the first time, a separately elected president.  There is no doubt about the electoral side of this democracy and, for the most part, the guarantees of fundamental rights.” 

Process was key, says Horowitz, the James B. Duke Professor of Law and Political Science who is currently serving as a Fellow of the American Academy in Berlin.  “The question after the fall of Suharto was how to democratize — the people who inherited his mantle realized they had to become democrats pretty fast.  They reformed themselves and they reformed the laws and held a free election the next year, and so they were joined in parliament by the people who were in the opposition parties.  They decided together that they would make the constitution rather than send it to an outside commission or to a separately elected constituent assembly.” Their decision to craft the constitution as “an inside job” forced the parliamentarians to find compromise and consensus between those who wanted dramatic constitutional change and those who did not but still held a power under the old constitution to veto changes, he explains.

The institutions they created allowed the multiple [ethnic and religious] streams of Indonesian society to be represented in parliament through a non-majoritarian ‘list-PR’ electoral system, Horowitz says.  “In theory, a party that gets 10 percent of the vote would get plus or minus 10 percent of the seats in parliament.   This meant that nobody had a majority in parliament,” he explains.  “One can think of Indonesia as being divided between observant Muslims and everybody else, which could raise a majority-minority problem.  But that hasn’t happened because of the system.”

Superimposed on the electoral system, adds Horowitz, was the formula the parliamentarians developed for electing a president:  securing the majority of votes in the country at large, plus at least 20 percent of the vote in at least half of Indonesia’s provinces. “They wanted a president who has appeal to a broad swath of the electorate.  Territorial distribution means that presidents, who previously were appointed by parliament and then became dictators, have to go and seek support all around the country.  And if nobody can meet the formula’s two requirements, then there is a majority runoff between the top two candidates.” 

The formula gives political parties incentive to cultivate support across societal streams, he says.  “You can’t get a majority if you are just staying within your own [ethnic or religious] stream.  So you’ve got streams represented in the first instance and then you’ve got voters voting across streams for the president.  And with time they actually began to vote across streams for the parties for the legislature, as well. 

“This is an example of what I call ‘multi-polar fluidity,’” says Horowitz.  “It’s multi-polar because there is a party for every taste, and it’s fluid because you don’t have to vote for that party, even if it represents the stream that you are nominally affiliated with.  This is a very good way to run what would otherwise be a severely divided society.” 

Horowitz, who retires from teaching on Jan. 31, makes it clear that Indonesia’s democracy is a work in progress. “What the insiders did was a thoroughgoing democratization.  But the problems that remained as a result of the insiders having the inside track, namely corruption networks and a variety of other pathologies, are still there.”  Still, he writes, “It is simply a far-better than-it-might-have-been story … because of the way political leaders chose to proceed, opting for a course that risked public confidence in what they were doing, for the sake of avoiding even greater risks.”