Vox Media published a video on youtube in June 22nd 2017 which succesfully attracted my attention. The title of that video is “The decline of American democracy won’t be televised”. The five minutes long video discuss about the current democratic backsliding that is happening in US, particularly the acts that are undertaken by President Donald Trump. The video also motivated me to know more about democratic backsliding. Nancy Bermeo, the Nuffeld Chair of Comparative Politics at Oxford University, provides a comprehensive explanation about it in her article for Journal of Democracy titled “On Democratic Backsliding”. In this article, I will elucidate democratic backsliding concept and analyze the case of Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat Republik Indonesia’s (DPR RI/Indonesia’s House of Representative) decision to exercise Inquiry Right against Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK/Corruption Eradication Commission) in its perspective. Is the decision of DPR RI to inquire KPK classified as a democratic backsliding?
Let’s talk about democratic backsliding first and what it really means. In my own words, democratic backsliding is a form of democratic regression process towards failure. At its most basic, it denotes the state-led debilitation or elimination of any kind of political institutios that sustain an existing democracy (Bermeo 2016: 1). Democratic backsliding is more of a gradual process and takes form in subtle acts. The acts of democratic backsliding are also mostly legal based on the constitution. Based on the data that Bermeo shows, coups d’état, executive coups by elected leaders and blatant election day vote fraud have declined in frequency, but there are still several variety of democratic backsliding which remain. There are still three kinds of backsliding that occur in the contemporary political constellation of the world, there are: (1) promissory coups; (2) executive aggrandizement; and (3) strategic elections manipulation.
Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg (2017), Professors of Law at University of Chicago Law School, explicate that there are two model paths of democratic decay: authoritarian reversion and constitutional retrogression. According to Huq and Ginzburg, retrogression is a more subtle, incremental erosion that happens simultaneously to three institutional predictaes of democracy: competitive elections; rights of political speech and association; and the administrative and ajudicative rule of law. We can notice now that there are three keywords of democratic backsliding: incremental (gradual), subtle and legal. Huq and Ginsburg further elaborate that there are five pathways of constitutional retrogression: (1) constitutional amendment; (2) the elimination of institutional checks; (3) the centralization and politicization of executive power; (4) the contraction of the public sphere; and (5) the elimination of political competition.
In my empirical view, and considering the case of Indonesia today, democratic backsliding takes form in the act of its House of Representatives, DPR RI, at least the majority of its member. Act of corruption is one thing, but exercise Inquiry Rights to the institution that tries to eradicate corruption is outrageous. The move by Commission III of the House began when KPK refused to release the record of its investigation of former lawmaker of House Commission III Miryam S Haryani of Hanura over corruption in the electronic-ID card procurement in which more than 50 lawmakers and former lawmakers are implicated (Tempo.co June 12th 2017). The decision to exercise Inquiry Right against KPK was passed by DPR RI in April 28th 2017. Pansus (Panitia Khusus/Special Committee) has also been formed in May 30th 2017 with sixteen commisioners from five factions. PDIP, PPP, Golkar, Nasdem and Hanura–which are members of the governing coalition–have already been representated in the Special Committee by then.
Whatever the case is, this act is disgraceful in a glimpse and I don’t think it is set as an effort to employ check and balances. It is even against the law because Inquiry Right only applies for state agency, and KPK is not a state agency. Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting Center (SMRC) did a suvey about Indonesian citizens’s judgment regarding DPR RI’s decision to exercise Inquiry Right against KPK in May 2017 with 1.350 respondents. The survey’s result shows that 65% of Indonesian citizens are against it. 51.6% agree that DPR RI use Inquiry Right to protect its members from legal process by KPK. We can say that the decision made by DPR RI is not a reflection of Indonesian citizens’ aspiration, it is originated from their own desire. The possibility of KPK being weakened by it is almost an absolute. In my opinion, DPR RI’s decision to exercise Inquiry Right against KPK is an act of democratic backsliding. It debilitate an institution that serves to sustain democracy by eradicating corruption. In my opinion, it is also a form of abuse of power.
I agree with Huq and Ginsburg, there is no perfect democratic system and there will always be some quanta of such violation. Regardless of its imperfection and its fissure for backsliding, I still believe that democracy is the most ideal political system to be implemented. But another question pops up, how do we prevent and reduce democratic backsliding? I do realize that this question can not only be answered by a normative answer, but sometimes a simple and normative answer is the most fundamental element of the solution itself. In order to prevent and reduce democratic backsliding, citizens’ political participation has to be optimized and civil society needs to be strengthen. The key is to always care, participate and engage in democracy. The balance of democracy can not be accomplished by itself without the participation of all elements, especially the people. My conclusion is democratic backsliding is a real threat to democracy, but we as citizens can and should contribute to prevent and reduce it.
Ahmad, Saidiman. June 15th 2017. Mayoritas Rakyat Indonesia Menolak Penggunaan Hak Angket DPR untuk KPK. http://www.saifulmujani.com/blog/2017/06/15/mayoritas-rakyat-indonesia-menolak-penggunaan-hak-angket-dpr-untuk-kpk accessed in June 27th 2017 at 10:55 PM.
Bermeo, Nancy. January 2016. On Democratic Backsliding. Journal of Democracy, Volume 27, Number 1. Pg. 5-19.
Huq, Aziz and Tom Ginsburg. January 2017. How To Lose Constitutional Democracy. UCLA Law Review Vol. 65.
Tempo.co Redaction. June 12th 2017. House Set to Go Ahead Exercising Right on KPK. https://nasional.tempo.co/read/news/2017/06/12/055883590/house-set-to-go-ahead-exercising-inquiry-right-on-kpk accessed in June 27th 2017 at 10:40 PM.
Vox Media. June 22nd 2017. The Decline of American Democracy Won’t be Televised. https://youtu.be/pF-Tdsvk0tI accessed in June 26th 2017 at 09:00 PM.