Pandemic politics and the dangers of consociationalism in Indonesia

Democracies do not all form the same way; Indonesia provides an excellent example into the relationship between COVID-19 and democratization and its potential hazards.

Since the beginning of 2021, Indonesia has seen its worst spike in both COVID-19 cases as well as deaths since the onset of the pandemic. With rising numbers, Indonesia’s hospitals have reached their maximum capacity and have started to turn away numerous people. In fact, one Indonesian man recently died after ten hospitals turned him away due to capacity issues. In addition, healthcare workers in Indonesia have severely struggled throughout the pandemic. For months at the beginning of the pandemic, Indonesia faced a major shortage of PPE. Many workers were forced to wear rain jackets when faced with no other option. 

It is key to analyze Indonesia’s pandemic response in comparison to its neighbors. One of the most defining actions taken by Indonesia at the beginning of the pandemic was to fully deny any cases within its borders. In turn, the government refused to initiate measures such as social distancing and limiting crowds. This decision was made in the midst of booming COVID-19 rates in other Asian states, many of which rapidly instituted COVID-19 restrictions. Looking at the graph listed below, Indonesia’s consistent struggle against rising COVID-19 rates makes it an outlier against its neighbors. After its original exponential spike around March 11th, Indonesia differs from many other states in the way that it never saw a significant decline in case rates. Indonesia’s failure to efficiently respond to the COVID-19 crisis can be traced back to its democratic roots. 

Source: Our World In Data 

Democratization’s Long Term Effects 

All of Indonesia’s shortcomings in curtailing COVID-19 can be analyzed through the consocionalism that has driven Indonesian democracy for over two decades. In Democratization, Bogaards (2019, p. 230-231) describes consociationalism as “Elite cooperation takes the form of grand coalitions in which the leaders of all main groups are represented; proportional representation in assemblies and proportional allocation of offices and resources.” Not to argue that consocionalism has been bad for Indonesia in the grand scheme of things but Indonesia’s power-sharing political structure has certainly led to some of its shortcomings in this pandemic. Power-sharing agreements have led to patronage and corruption in Indonesia’s government which has, in turn, severely hampered their ability to control COVID-19. 

Indonesia’s COVID-19 Crisis 

The government’s failure to institute restrictions led to many Indonesian citizens taking actions into their own hands to encourage others to stay at home, social distance, and clean their hands more often. It is obviously difficult for citizens to get everyone around them to also follow these restrictions, but the important part of this example is that it exemplifies one thing that has massively benefitted Indonesia’s democratic prospects: its thriving, expressive civil society.

Indonesia has only been a democracy for a little over 20 years. After its infamous dictator, Suharto, stepped down in 1998, Indonesia’s democratic prospects did not look good. This pessimism could be attributed to a vast Muslim majority in the country who were heavily persectued by Suharto as well as skepticism for a country made up of 6,000 inhabited islands to run a fair and free election during a massive power vacuum like Indonesia had in 1998. When Suharto stepped down, the Indonesian people were relentless in their fight for reform. Students crowded government buildings in protest against corruption and military activity in Indonesian politics. Additionally, new found media freedoms and an appointed president who supported democratic ideals caused Indonesia’s first post-Suharto election to run relatively smoothly although there were some incidents of corruption and fraud. Following the election, the new ruling party often had to work with the old regime due to the regime’s overwhelming political and economic influence. This is a key event in Indonesian politics as it introduced a concept that has been a major part of Indonesian politics since its turn to democracy: Consociationalism. 

Consociationalism’s Inefficient Impact 

The main goals behind consociationalism are based around mending social conflict through institutional rules that cater to all major groups of a society. The basic assumption of consociationalism, according to Norris (2008, p. 17) in Driving Democracy, is that “winner-take-all regimes are more prone to generate adversarial politics in a zero-sum power game.” In turn, this assumption is what drives some states such as Indonesia to turn to consociationalism when faced with a power vacuum like Indonesia was in 1998. I should note that Indonesia did not fully employ a consociationalist system. Rather, Indonesia employed a “hybrid power-sharing” system according to Krzysztof Trzciński. This describes a mix of consociationalism and Centripetalism. However, my analysis focuses solely on the consequences of the consociationalist aspects.  

There has been some empirical evidence that shows consociationalism to have a generally positive influence on states. But, there are also trends in states that employ this idea that prove some of its major limitations. Political scientists Scott Gates and Kaare Strøm point out in their article that one of the downsides of power-sharing is the prevalence of “transaction costs” which dictates the difficulty a government has in creating policy. Because this system promotes the voices of various groups, it is difficult for definitive decisions to be made for the entire population. Additionally, according to Gates and Strøm, power-sharing agreements often lead to appointments and officials that are chosen from a specific group who are 1) not very qualified for office as their selection may just be based on their dedication to their group’s interests and 2) have no oversight over their decision-making. In effect, corruption can be extremely prevalent in states where power-sharing practices are done. Aspinall writes extensively on the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM), a militant group who fought for independence from Indonesia for nearly 30 years. Because of GAM’s fight with the Indonesian government, Aspinall points out that they became well-trained on the ins and outs of Indonesia’s power-sharing system in the Aceh province and used that to heavily fund themselves on the government’s dime and gain political power after the 2005 Helsinki Peace Deal which brought GAM and the Indonesian government to a truce. This example is surely not the exception in Indonesia as corruption is viewed to be widespread in the country as the graph below shows.

                     Source: Gallup 

Power Sharing in a Pandemic

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy to see that the states who had taken swift action to institute restrictions based on the expertise of medical experts were the ones who generally found the most success. It is clear that those states that had scientific and medical experts in their governments as well as an executive branch that trusted their advice fared the best against COVID-19. Indonesia, however, lacks in both of those areas and President Joko Widodo is a central figure in Indonesia’s failure to control Covid-19. 

One of Widodo’s destructive contributions to Indonesia’s crisis are his ministerial appointments. One of the most indicative signs of the dangers of a power-sharing system is Indonesia’s former health minister, Terawan Agus Putranto, a formal military general. If “former military general” wasn’t enough of a worrying sign for a health minister, his credentials surely are. Putranto came under fire before his appointment as health minister for one treatment he heavily advocated for in treating strokes: a “brain wash.” This treatment was considered highly unethical due to its total lack of clinical trial evidence. The Indonesian Medical Association (IMI) recommended he be suspended from practicing for a year. During his time as health minister, Putranto was renowned for discrediting scientific evidence on COVID-19. He is also well-known for his assertion at the beginning of the pandemic that claimed Indonesia’s COVID-19 cases were low due to divine intervention. Additionally, Widodo’s social affairs minister was found to have taken around $800,000 in bribes from contractors who were tasked with delivering food and packages to citizens. Despite the questionable credentials and corruption from specific ministers, the true consequences of Indonesia’s political structure in this health crisis comes from its inability to centralize its pandemic response. One prominent example was when President Widodo pushed for increased rapid testing in contrast to PCR testing in March 2020 which was seen as a move that undermined the country’s current attempts to increase testing as rapid tests are known to be less reliable than PCR testing. In turn, these imported rapid tests were severely upcharged, costing $68 each despite it only costing $3.50 to make each one. The government has also severely failed to contact trace following confirmed cases. By June 6th, 2020, the government only contact traced approximately 54% of confirmed carriers. Throughout all of these failures in testing and contact tracing, the government and its various ministers were also known to promote preposterous “cures.” Some of those cures include wearing a eucalyptus potion necklace and inhaling the steam from boiled arak. Because the uselessness of the government in creating strong, scientific policy, Indonesia’s woes can be attributed to the unqualified officials who have served to only peddle disinformation and delay important measures related to COVID-19. Indonesia’s battle with COVID-19 is not over but Indonesia has certainly put up a poor fight and much of it can be attributed to its democratization over the last two decades.

Blake Faughnan is an International Relations and Sociology major, expected to graduate in May 2021.


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