Revitalizing the Bali Democracy Forum

By Jeremiah Magpile

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide speaking at the Bali Democracy Forum, November 8, 2012. Source: Utenriksdept's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

The Indonesian Foreign Ministry in 2008 established the Bali Democracy Forum (BDF) as an intergovernmental platform to strengthen democratic institutions in the Asia-Pacific. The international community at the time, including the United States, lauded the BDF’s dialogue-based approach for its ability to attract states such as Myanmar and China. Moreover, the BDF signaled Indonesia’s regional leadership and recognition of democracy as a strategic component of its foreign policy.

Now in its fifth year, the BDF has struggled to maintain the international recognition needed to grow from a discussion into an action oriented vehicle. Consequently, the BDF has lost the media attention and political relevance it had in earlier years.

This stagnation stems in part from the participation of non-democratic states that fail to implement princples discussed at the BDF. Several of the 11 heads of state that participated this year are criticized at home and internationally. They included Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Promoting dialogue between democratic and non-democratic states, however, is why the BDF was hailed as innovative when it was conceived. Thus, revitalizing the BDF as a regional platform for the discussion and implementation of democratic practices is crucial for democratic development in the region.

Furthermore, Indonesia’s failure as forum founder to effectively address topics discussed at the BDF through the forum’s implementing arm, the Institute of Peace and Democracy, will in the long-term harm its reputation as a broker for democracy in the region and the world.

If Indonesia is serious about the BDF and democracy building as a component of foreign policy, it needs to garner the political support of key countries outside the Asia-Pacific region and include civil society groups in the discussion, which to date participate only as observers.

The most recent forum November 8-9 highlighted these needs when heads of state and 80 delegates from 40 countries, in addition to conducting democracy-building workshops, criticized the exclusive nature of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), and called for the restructuring of the Permanent-5 system. In particular, delegates pointed to the ongoing Syrian conflict as evidence of the UNSC’s ineffectiveness.

The BDF, despite having doubled participation since 2008, lacks the political capacity and international interest to act upon issues as large as UNSC reform. Raising similar issues at the BDF without implementing the approprite responses only reinforces its irrelevance.

Indonesia, as the BDF founder, needs to address this issue by including more heads of states that hold the lion’s share of global influence in discussions of democratic best practices. In so doing it must first build the BDF’s international credibility by consolidating domestic democracy.

Upgrading civil society from observers to participators is a necessary step that will open channels of technical assistance contributing to the BDF mission and allowing it to remain relevant. In this regard, civil society adds to the dialog without threatening non-democratic participants.

The BDF will remain important to Indonesia’s democratic leadership in the region only if its implementation moves beyond keynote speeches. Thus, Indonesia must capitalize on the BDF’s ability to bring together non-democratic and democratic states to discuss democratic best practices and it is clear that it cannot do so alone.

Mr. Jeremiah Magpile is a Researcher with the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.

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