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Podcast: The Pursuit of Democratic Resilience

August 4, 2021

By Peter Yates and Ade Siti Barokah

With anticipation building for U.S. President Biden’s “Democracy Summit,” which he has committed to holding within the first year of his presidency, there is already significant discussion about what the United States’ return to promoting democracy will mean for its engagement with the world, and how this may affect aid programming priorities. In Southeast Asia, certainly, President Biden and his new USAID administrator, Samantha Power, will find a region much changed from a decade ago, when both were engaged in the Obama Administration’s “Pivot to Asia” and the shining light of the democratic world was found at the mouth of the Irrawaddy River with the dramatic transition that was underway in Myanmar.

Myanmar’s recent relapse into military rule is perhaps the most depressing chapter of the democratic story in Southeast Asia, but the news has been downbeat across the region, as governments and leaders with authoritarian tendencies have presided over democratic backsliding, the hollowing-out of key institutions such as courts and the media, and a squeeze on civil society more broadly. There is little apparent interest today in burnishing democratic credentials on the world stage when traditional champions such as the United States and Britain have been preoccupied with their own political reckonings at home. So, what is the state of democracy that President Biden will find in Southeast Asia, and what efforts are under way to bolster democratic practices and institutions across the region?

According to Freedom in the World 2020, by Freedom House, a nonprofit that conducts research on democracy and political freedom, “political rights and civil liberties declined overall in Asia as authoritarian rulers showed their disdain for democratic values through practices ranging from fabricated criminal cases against opposition leaders to mass persecution of religious and ethnic minorities.” In Southeast Asia, only Timor-Leste is ranked as “free,” with four other nations ranked as “partly free” (Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines), and six countries as “not free” (Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Brunei). Some of the region’s largest countries have also seen the most significant decreases in civil liberties and political rights over the last decade, with Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand all showing significant declines on Freedom House’s scoring index.

Recounting individual ballots for the Jakarta Governor's election.

Recounting the ballots in the Jakarta governor’s election of 2017. The rancorous election was marked by intense sectarianism and identity politics, and public dissatisfaction prompted numerous recounts.

Concern for the health of democracy is even more marked when citizens themselves are asked. A recent study in six countries of Southeast Asia found overwhelming support for democracy, but also significant anxiety about the integrity of key institutions such as electoral systems and government abuse of the coronavirus crisis to curb people’s freedoms. Concerns about foreign interference are particularly high, with a majority believing that such interference is likely to influence elections. And while respondents generally perceive social media as a positive influence on their democracy, those who believe there should be more regulation of such platforms significantly outnumber those who believe there should be less.

So, if political freedoms and civil liberties in many parts of the region are in decline, and if the people themselves are concerned about the state of democracy in their own countries, how can the new Biden administration and other interested actors support democratic institutions and practices there?

Democratic resilience is a concept borrowed from the field of ecology that seeks to articulate the characteristics of political institutions that can withstand twenty-first century governance challenges and illiberal and authoritarian threats. Resilient democratic systems show flexibility and innovation in the face of stress, and the ability to adapt and recover when faced with challenges or crises. As these attributes have become better understood, there has been a concerted effort to bolster them through development programming.

One place where this work is occurring is Southeast Asia’s largest country and the world’s third-largest democracy, Indonesia. Like many other countries, Indonesia’s democratic institutions are under growing strain. Faced with the challenges of identity politics, social polarization, and the storm of disinformation on social media, the fabric of the archipelago’s democratic institutions is being tested, from the national level down to local communities.

To address this challenge, The Asia Foundation in Indonesia has launched Reclaiming Civic Space to Promote Democratic Resilience (RCS). The project is part of a larger DFAT-supported Democratic Resilience program. RCS focuses on local political participation, recognizing that, in Indonesia, democratic resilience occurs when citizens can shape the political agenda based on their shared needs and interests, ward off sectarian narratives used by divisive political leaders and their supporters, and stand up against sectarian polarization.

Men and women stand together at a Counter narrative Campaign forum.

A counter-narrative campaign commemorating the death of Abdurrahman Wahid, fourth president of Indonesia and a prominent democracy advocate. Participants in this event on Jan. 26, 2020, spoke out against sectarian narratives and identity politics.

An important innovation of RCS has been drawn from successful countering-violent-extremism (CVE) programming in Indonesia. It works at the local level, where local CSOs seek to counter extremist, sectarian, or identity-based discourse with pragmatic counter-narratives, grounded in local conditions and shared through intra- and interfaith dialogue, that address concrete issues of governance and development. RCS is also deliberately inclusive of marginalized and vulnerable groups, allowing their voices to be heard in organizing their communities, building new capacities, and advocating for better local policies.

Faith leaders hold interfaith prayer on Human Rights Day

Interfaith prayers on Human Rights Day, Dec. 2019, part of a countering-violent-extremism program in Central Java. In addition to Islamic, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, and Buddhist faith leaders, the event was attended by the governor of Central Java and other national and local political figures.

RCS strengthens democratic resilience by helping people at the district level to restore comity and common purpose to civic space and to shape the political discourse based on democratic values. In Aceh, Jakarta, Yogyakarta, and Maluku provinces, RCS works with local civil society organizations of all stripes—from NGOs to professional associations to religious, youth, and women’s groups—to create forums where they can strengthen their connections to their constituents. These local partners assemble coalitions around shared development and governance issues, then press local politicians to pursue these issues instead of divisive identity politics.

The Reclaiming Civic Space program is just one example of efforts across Southeast Asia to increase the resilience of democratic systems. Based on the recognition that locally grounded narratives motivate people to engage constructively in the democratic process, RCS is contributing to the evolution of Indonesia’s democracy towards greater flexibility and inclusion. Efforts such as these need to be supported to counter the challenges to democracy. As Administrator Power said in a speech in June this year, “The struggle for democratic expansion cannot just be about rhetoric. In the face of serious backsliding and rising authoritarianism, we must clearly and unequivocally demonstrate that democracies can govern competently and deliver real results for real people.” Initiatives like RCS will reveal the extent to which democracy can become more resilient across Southeast Asia, and what the next chapter in the region’s dynamic experience of competing forms of government will be.

Peter Yates is The Asia Foundation’s associate director for governance programs, and Ade Siti Barokah is a program officer for the Foundation’s Reclaiming Civic Space program, which is supported by DFAT in Indonesia. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Indonesia
Related programs: Good Governance
Related topics: Civic Spaces


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