THE BUSINESS TIMES- AS MADELEINE Albright wrote in her brilliant take on the rise of authoritarian regimes, Fascism: A Warning, the Italian dictator Mussolini was once quoted as saying that when accumulating power it is best to do so as one would pluck a chicken - feather by feather - "so each squawk is heard apart from every other and the whole process is kept as muted as possible".
Eric Posner, an eminent American law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, has also observed increasing numbers of leaders in the community of democratic nations plucking the proverbial chicken. "I think what people are worried about, when you look at other countries that have slid into authoritarianism, what has happened is that the leaders of those countries have proceeded incrementally, and so when they do some things initially that people don't resist, that enhances their power. Once they have more power they can do more things, take more action."
On US President Donald Trump, he has also been on the record commenting, "you could slide into an authoritarian regime without a real crisis ever taking place, and I think that's what people should be focusing on".
In Indonesia, the world's third largest democracy, those of us who fought for the ouster of Suharto 20 years ago and looked towards the West for inspiration now find ourselves watching the antics of far-right politicians in the United States, Europe and elsewhere with near-lurid fascination. Sadly, for pro-democracy activists and politicians such as myself, the beacon for liberalism has inexplicably dimmed.
Unfortunately, we are not only spectators. Indonesians are, albeit slowly, coming to a realisation the Cold War practice of resorting to tanks, bullets and palace coups to grab and maintain power is passé. Overly ambitious politicians in our midst have no need for the military as before: instead, they are taking notes out of the playbooks of leaders in other democracies - the so-called elected authoritarians - who are using democratic institutions to weaken or destroy democracy.
News of a democratic backsliding in Indonesia may come as a surprise, especially for those looking from the outside. The image of our president, Joko Widodo, is one of a happy-go-lucky political outsider. A former furniture salesman from Central Java, Mr Widodo is a Forrest Gump-like character playing the star role in something akin to Mr Smith Goes To Washington: stumbling almost by accident into the job of the presidency, holding the best of intentions for his people and ostensibly trying to overturn the old order of elitist politics.
As in Hollywood, the political reality behind the story being told is often starkly at odds with the images and narratives we are led to believe. This is reflected in TheEconomist's Democracy 2017 Index: out of the 167 countries surveyed, the largest decline in democratic freedoms took place in Indonesia, sliding from a ranking of 48th in the world to 68th over a period of just one year.
In other words, Mr Widodo and members of his ruling coalition have plucked the chicken.
Rolling back democratic norms
Since coming to office over four years ago, Mr Widodo has either openly supported the rolling back of democratic norms or, through acts of omission, enabled powerful players inside the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government to do the same, more often than not without exercising protest in his moral authority as president.
The results so far? In authoritarian turns reminiscent of the Suharto era, the government has granted itself greater discretionary power to ban civil society organisations, hence threatening the freedom of association; in a new criminal code sponsored by Mr Widodo's political allies that could soon be passed by the House of Representatives, lying in wait are draconian measures to restrict the rights of religious minorities; freedom of speech has also been under attack as a result of a revised electronic information law supported by Mr Widodo, which has been used numerous times to criminalise critics of the government; and finally, the independence of the attorney general's office, as well as the anti-corruption agency, has been compromised by the Widodo administration with the objective of intimidating opposition politicians and pro-democracy activists.
The fact that Indonesians care deeply about their democracy and yet Mr Widodo remains a popular figure is puzzling. And this puzzle also carries consequences: according to most surveys, Mr Widodo is the favoured candidate for winning April's presidential election.
Part of the reason for Mr Widodo's continued popularity, besides his easy-going Javanese persona, is a subservient local media industry. The fact is, Indonesian conglomerates dominate media outlets through television, radio and newspapers. Wanting to preserve and expand their business empires outside the media, conglomerate owners understand the value of currying favour with the president and his administration. As an example, when one tycoon was asked by his senior staff about the newspaper's editorial policy, his answer was "you can cover and report on whatever you want without my interference. But there is an exception. Just make sure you never criticise the president".
The other reason behind Mr Widodo's better-than-even chances of becoming a two-term president can be found in his rival, Prabowo Subianto - the fact that he is a retired general with a coloured military career, and he was once an in-law of the Suharto family, provides the Widodo campaign team with ammunition to caricaturise the incumbent's opponent as a dictator-in-waiting. Mr Subianto is the perfect counterpoint to Mr Widodo as the latter continues to cultivate his image as a man of the people.
Yet, ironically, what many people fail to notice is that a large number of the president's advisors, confidantes and key Cabinet members are holdovers from the 30-year authoritarian Suharto regime, which explains, in many ways, the authoritarian instincts of the Widodo administration. If Mr Widodo does win this year's election, it would be a safe bet to predict Indonesia's democracy will continue down the path of decline.
- The writer is a former minister of finance, coordinating minister of economics, and more recently coordinating minister of maritime affairs for Indonesia.
- (The Business Times,Wed, Jan 09, 2019 )