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Democratic Transitions in Southeast Asia
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Through several different presidencies, the Philippines and Indonesia experienced democratic transitions. Although the Philippines formally adopted the democratic ideal earlier than Indonesia through its 1987 Democratic Constitution, it constantly shifted back and forth in legitimatizing its civil society. Several competing political narratives and corruption caused the shifts. Indonesia, on the other hand, experienced a clean break from authoritarianism to democratization after the illegitimate forms of democracy under Sukarno and Suharto. Indonesia’s challenges were focused more on religion than corruption because the country’s secular democracy clashed with its Muslim majority population. However, the latest Indonesian president, Jokowi, advocated for democratization and pluralism, which helped alleviate religious conflicts and minority disputes. Thus, with the strengthening of civil society and the rise of pluralism, Indonesia had better, more stable democratic transitions than the Philippines.  

After the Philippines achieved its independence in 1946, it went through a series of presidencies that aimed to democratize the country following Ferdinand Marcos’s authoritarian rule. Marcos, the first president of the Philippines, ruled as a dictator and argued that authoritarianism was necessary to keep the country stable (Lect, Feb.29). Consequently, a need for reform emerged, and a change to democracy was achieved through the EDSA Revolution, a people power movement (Ibid).  Following the defeat of Marcos by the people, the 1987 Constitution, the most liberal and democratic constitution of Southeast Asia, formed under Corazon Aquino (Lect, Mar.7). It said that the state should encourage the formation of non-governmental and community-based organizations that promote the welfare of the nation (Ibid). NGOS that advocated for free and independent press and 1985 social weather stations (Ibid) that communicated findings to the general public gave rise to a stable civil society. Continuing this pattern of democratization, Fidel Ramos who took over in 1992 advocated for a government absent of elitist, traditional politics (Lect, Mar.2). He was famous for legalizing the Communist Party of the Philippines, convincing the Reform of the Armed Forces officers previously loyal to Marcos to swear allegiance to the civilian democracy, and granting regional autonomy to a Southern Muslim group if they laid down their weapons (Ibid). All of these efforts strengthened people’s power, a successful act of democratization.

Despite Ramos’s efforts to bring about civil society, Joseph “Erap” Estrada failed to continue democratization. He was elected through movie star populism-making direct appeals to the poor (Thompson 2) by portraying himself as the hero fighting for the rights of the poor against corrupt elites (Thompson 6). However, he was quickly denounced for corruption and failed to keep his promise of tackling poverty. Like Erap, Gloria Arroyo became mired in scandals and corruption (Lect, Mar.2). Instead of appealing to the poor, she engaged in elitist family politics by dominating politics through wealth. She tolerated armed intimidation and directed electoral manipulation (Thompson 12) to secure votes. In 2006, thousands of people that flocked to the set of Wowowee after hearing that the first 100 would receive a free item overcrowded the area and had to be contained by the police. During the presidencies of Ramos and Arroyo, the prevalence of corruption highlighted the ineffectiveness of reducing income inequality, which reflected the failure of improving civil society.

However, democracy started to pick up again with Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino’s presidency in 2010 (Lect, Mar.2). He stressed the restoration of good governance (Thompson 3), aiming to foster economic development and improve the lives of the poor (Thompson 18). He lived by the saying “when no one’s corrupt, no one’s poor” (Lect,Mar.2). Although he brought democratization to its forefront once again, Philippines still lacked some aspects of civil society. For instance, after the 2013 Typhoon Yolanda, the Philippines realized the need for a strengthened, independent national disaster body fully empowered to prepare the country for natural disasters (Salazar 296) to ensure maximum protection of human lives. Noynoy redirected the country towards democracy, but the Philippines needed to further develop its organizational capacities for a fully empowered civil society. At first, Philippines’s democratic constitution was not initially adhered to because of authoritarianism and corruption, but it is now reflected in the democratic nature of the country. Overall, however, the Philippines experienced a constant back and forth movement with democratization.

Although Indonesia struggled to achieve a successful democracy under the first two presidents, compared to the Philippines, Indonesia experienced a clear democratic transition with more tangible improvements such as pluralism. Under Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, the country faced guided democracy (Lect, Mar.14). Suharto relied heavily on the military to suppress the opposition and reinstated the 1945 Constitution in 1959 to consolidate power within one person (Ibid). However, following Gestapu, an event in which the communists were blamed for the assassination of six army generals (Ibid), the military prevented Sukarno from appealing to both the people and the military. After Sukarno’s exile, Suharto, a high-ranking military official, took over in 1966 (Ibid) and tried to reinvent Indonesia through a peculiar form of democracy.

Suharto merely created an illusion of democracy by allowing oppositional parties with no political power to exist. The 3 state-controlled party system was a vehicle for his democratic “legitimacy” (Lect, Mar.14). He banned the Communist party, but formed Golkar, which supported Suharto and the government, Partal Persatuan Pembangunan (PPP), which fused Islamic parties and factions (Sirry 102), and Partai Demokrasi Indonesian (PDI), which was neither Golkar nor Islamic (Lect, Mar.14). In the political realm, Golkar only held power. In addition, Suharto’s rule suffered from corruption, collusion, and nepotism (Ibid). Instead of evenly distributing wealth, his family held unto all the riches. Though he painted a democratic illusion, he failed to create a civil society in which people were fairly represented and treated. Suharto eventually stepped down when the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis hit. It destroyed Indonesia’s economy but caused democracy to take a strong hold because people, having nothing to lose, began to protest against illegitimate democracy.

Real democratization took place under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) in 2004, which marked the first true, direct democratic election (Lect, Mar.16). SBY, a former military leader but also firmly committed to democracy, improved human rights and allowed progressive ideas to be institutionalized in the form of society-based organizations (Sirry 111). This freedom of expression gave rise to groups such as the National Commission for Human Rights and the Legal Aid Institute that cleaned up the corrupted legal system (Lect, Mar.16). In the era of openness, various Muslim groups demanded “a more visible assertion of Islam in national politics” (Sirry 110). Thus, in post-authoritarian Indonesia, state intervention did not dominate politics, and the people voiced their rights and choice of religion.

Indonesia continued moving closer to a successful democracy with the presidential election of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in 2014 (Lect, Mar.16). Jokowi was unlike his six predecessors because he did not rise through the military or ranks of the political party system (Connelly 5). He wanted Indonesia to have a citizen-based democracy, advocated for pluralism (Lect, Mar.16), and prioritized domestic reform (Connelly 21). He immediately set about improving the city government and rolled out a citywide healthcare program (Connelly 25).  Jokowi also recognized the practice of Christianity in Ambon, an outer island, because pluralism, a context for democracy, safeguarded different religions. In addition, Jokowi protected indigenous rights because indigenous people had their own way of living, and a democratic state should embrace diversity (Lect, Mar.16). Unlike the Philippines that experienced shifts from democratization to corruption back to democratization, Indonesia encountered a steady period of pluralism, democratization, and a strong civil society after the fall of Sukarno and Suharto.

Under Jokowi, choice was a major theme for democracy. For instance, people had the freedom to choose what music they wanted to listen to. This gave reason for Inul Daratista, a controversial artist, to continue practicing music (Lect, Mar.30) despite opposition. Playboy magazines were also published because people chose whether to purchase the magazine, and if they were not bought, the business would simply fail (Ibid). In addition, Ada Apa Dengan Cinta, a powerful political film, taught people that they could transcend their identity and choose who to love (Ibid). Indonesia became a democratic country that respected the choice of its citizens. In fact, Jokowi sacrificed foreign relations to focus on enhancing protection of Indonesian citizens by fighting against domestic elitist corruption, improving the country’s dilapidated infrastructure, growing the economy, and improving living standards (Connelly 19). By far, Jokowi went the farthest with democracy by strengthening civil society and granting people the democratic choice to create their own society.

In conclusion, although both the Philippines and Indonesia made great efforts to democratize, Indonesia had a clear break from illegitimate democracy to a legitimate one. While the Philippines experienced democratic transitions with reductions in corruption and economic inequality to ensure a functional civil society, it experienced two presidencies with major corruption problems in between efforts of democratization. Although Indonesia suffered from religious conflicts, its clean break from a democratic illusion to a real democracy that promised pluralism, choice and a strong civil society accounted for its more successful democratic transitions.

Sooyoung Hu is currently a senior at UC Berkeley studying Political Science and Peace and Conflict Studies. Her focus is on international relations and therefore, is interested in learning about the politics and cultures of different countries and making comparisons. In the future, she aspires to go to law school.    

Works Cited

Connelly, Aaron L. Sovereignty and the Sea: President Joko Widodo’s Foreign Policy

Challenges. From Contemporary Southeast Asia 37:1, 2015

Salazar, Lorraine C. Typhoon Yolanda: The Politics of Disaster Response and Management.

From Southeast Asian Affairs, 2015

Sirry, Mun’im. Fatwas and their controversy: The case of the Council of Indonesian Ulama.

From Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 44:1, 2013.

Thompson, Mark R. Populism and the Revival of Reform: Competing Political Narrative in the

Philippines. From Contemporary Southeast Asia 32:1, 2010

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