South and East Asia, two of the world’s most dynamic regions, are at a crossroads: while some countries are tempted by a return to autocratic models, others are strengthening their young democracies by fostering participatory leadership.
It’s not easy to reach the striking building that houses Bawaslu, the unique Indonesian institution that works to preserve and strengthen the country’s democracy.
We are in downtown Jakarta, one of the world’s most populated urban areas, home to more than 30 million. Chaotic traffic and public transport that’s far from efficient means it takes a few hours to get from the airport to the central Menteng district, where the headquarters of the institution is to be found.
“Welcome to Bawaslu,” says a friendly team of staffers in the entry hall, before guiding me through the various tools and educational resources offered by “Badan Pengawas Pemilihan Umumexternal link” – the full title of the institution established in 1999.
This text is part of #DearDemocracy, a platform on direct democracy issues, by swissinfo.ch.
We are in Indonesia, one of the world’s most interesting and challenging democratic states. With a population of more than 250 million people (and 190 million voters, according to official statistics) Indonesia is the third-largest democracy in the world after India and the United States (if the European Union were a country, it would push Indonesia to fourth).
But it is also one of the most complex, with strong nationalist and religious forces mingling in a unique political geography. The country is made up of 33 provinces, more than 170 regions, and thousands of more-or-less populated islands including Java, the globe’s most populated place.
Supervising and educating
“Our constitutional task is to supervise elections”, says Mohammad Afifuddin, one of five commissioners at the head of Bawaslu.
But supervising elections across Indonesia is not just about sending observers to polling stations: “We’re also contributing to the long-term development of democracy in this country by informing and educating citizens to become participatory political leaders,” underlines the high-ranking state official, who previously worked for a social movement campaigning for more democracy across the country.
The results of this comprehensive public approach towards fostering democracy are impressive, as I saw a few weeks ago when I had the chance to follow a local election day across the country – an operation involving more than 1.2 million officials across almost 400,000 polling stations.
For a day I strolled around Tangerang, west of Jakarta. As one of the most populated suburbs of the city – over two million people living on just 164 square kilometres – Tangerang yet has an almost village-style character with lots of small community centres belonging to different ethnic groups, including Chinese and Papuans.
Everywhere I went, I was met by highly professional electoral teams and citizens that were well-informed about what was at stake in the election.
“Our democracy is a very precious treasure,” said a young father of two with Chinese roots outside a polling station. He also told me that all the households in the area had been visited by Bawaslu representatives before the election, informing residents about their rights and responsibilities.
Though it faces deep-rooted problems like the buying of votes, corruption and voter intimidation, Indonesia is nevertheless well on the way towards becoming a modern democracy. Other examples include India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and South Korea, all of which offer an encouraging contrast to the autocratic renaissance of patriarchal states such as China, Thailand, the Philippines or Cambodia.
In the last of these, Prime Minister Hun Sen – in power for 33 years – was re-elected on July 29 by a majority after having banned and imprisoned all opposition party candidates. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has taken pride in clearly following the Chinese model, promoting economic progress while violating human rights – and by creating the world’s youngest one-party state.
India’s election commission
Free and fair elections are a natural stepping stone for complex yet ambitious societies like those in South and East Asia – while they can also be stumbling blocks for all those forces not interested in modern democracy.
At the same time, free elections are not enough; one also needs to promote the open and transparent culture of a society where the basic principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (celebrating its 70th anniversary this autumn) are upheld by strong institutions.
Here the example of the powerful Indian Election Commissionexternal link and the work it does to organise and promote democracy across the giant country of more than 1.3 billion people, is important as an example.
Institutions like Bawaslu show that other countries in the region are also developing their own innovative approaches to develop and safeguard democracy. Further features include moves to devolve more powers to local and regional leaders, something that also happened across Indonesia recently.
Devolution has also been discussed in neighbouring Philippines, a country of more than 100 million people, but currently the nation is run by a leader – Rodrigo Duterte – whose focus is less than participatory.
Looking for democratic leaders
While democracy worldwide has been hit by a series of nationalist and autocratic setbacks recently, people power across Asia has been a true roller-coaster ride, with surprising new heights often overshadowed by strong backlashes. Just think of the celebrated election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar a few years ago, which was quickly followed by a genocide carried out by the military of the very same country.
Having visited Indonesia several times just this year and looked across a wider region that is home to 25% of the world’s population, I see a lot of opportunities and positive signals: strong electoral commissions that supervise and educational bodies like Bawaslu, on the one hand; growing numbers of political leaders who understand the necessity of active citizenship and participatory democracy, on the other.
In nations like Indonesia, India, Taiwan and Korea we find those leaders in growing numbers, especially as mayors and governors – a promise of a participatory future?