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Indonesianists have used “illiberal turn” to label various problems in Indonesian democracy. Shutterstock

Is using the term ‘illiberal turn’ beneficial for Indonesia’s democracy?

Analysts have referred to Indonesia’s many regressive policies and political developments as an “illiberal turn”. This label has been haphazardly applied, however, leading to a lack of specific policy remedies.

Some use “illiberal turn” to describe the success of hard-line Islamists in forcing the indictment and imprisonment of the then Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (or “Ahok”), on a religious blasphemy charge. Others use it to capture Indonesia’s broader democratic woes such as the persistent dominance of, and competition between, oligarchic groups.

Others use variations of the term such as illiberal tendencies, illiberal-democratic class, or illiberal politics to describe different problems in Indonesian politics. Yet, we still do not have a clear conception of what an illiberal turn is.

How do we know an ‘illiberal turn’ when we see one?

Presumably, the “illiberal” part stems from the concept of illiberal democracy. Scholars, however, disagree over what that is and whether it is universal.

Some argue that a democracy has two distinct parts – electoral (i.e. free and fair elections) and liberal (i.e. rule of law and the protection of basic liberties) – and it should meet both those criteria. So, an electorally democratic country with a damaged rule of law that cannot protect the equal freedom of all individuals is illiberal.

Others, however, challenge the universality of such democratic liberalism, particularly in the East and Southeast Asian context. These states have different ideas of governance and liberalism. Their governments have been expected, for example, to “intervene” in controlling societal interests and govern the whole society rather than protecting individual liberties. So why should the liberal–illiberal premise be appropriate to assess Indonesia?

Moreover, many of Indonesia’s democratic regressions, such as money politics or New Order stalwarts re-entering the new regime, started with the flawed 1998 transition of the Reformasi era. Was Indonesia ever on a liberal path to begin with if its transition was flawed?

The use of the word “turn” is also unclear. A “turn” means democratising states, such as Indonesia, are on a liberal path but took an illiberal turn. But if we could not agree on what that liberal path looks like, how can we agree where, when and how a “turn” happens?

Further, if most Southeast Asian countries including Indonesia were already “illiberal democracies” to start with, then the notion of a “turn” is unwarranted. Southeast Asian states have always prioritised political stability, regime security and state sovereignty.

The citizens increasingly seem to vote “against disorder” and choose candidates who promote order over law. The governments have also been more “performance-oriented” and obsessed with “effective governance” at the expense of individual liberties.

Conceptual accuracy matters

With such lack of clarity, we might end up with various analysts using the uniform term “illiberal” to describe different problems. It may spark endless debates over using selective evidence to back the use of the term. If we are not careful in employing the liberal-illiberal premise to portray Indonesia’s democratic trajectory, it will be harder for us to properly diagnose the problems.

Take the problems analysts cited above. They accurately capture, for example, the problem of ethno-religious political mobilisation in the Jakarta elections and the pervasive nexus between oligarchic and money politics. But the difficult question is: what can we do about it?

When these regressive behaviours are mixed together in an overarching illiberal turn, they are portrayed as long-term structural problems. Where do we start fixing structural problems? What can we do while waiting for long-term solutions like civil society empowerment?

Rather than confronting an umbrella of challenges like illiberal turn, perhaps we could focus more rigorously on specific problems.

For instance, we might be better off systematically analysing why ethno-religious political mobilisation in the Jakarta election was effective. As it stands, we have contending explanations for this. We need better, systematic data to evaluate them, rather than an underdeveloped concept like illiberal turn.

To take another example, consider how some believe that senior military generals’ growing role in political affairs lately is another sign of democratic regression. If portrayed as another illiberal turn, we end up with another round of “glass half-full half-empty” debate over Indonesia’s civil-military relations and political reforms. But with a specific diagnosis, we can examine how their behaviours might be driven by organisational challenges like promotional logjams within the military.

In short, we should avoid underdeveloped labels or concepts that are overarching and focus instead on specific policy problems in depth. Moving forward, we should isolate the problems rigorously and systematically, otherwise we would not be able to understand how one problem might affect the other.

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