KOMPAS.com - Last week, the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, delivered a fine, astute speech about democracy.
The setting was the Bali Democracy Forum, an annual get-together of international leaders on the resort island where they talk about the possibilities and pitfalls of democratic transformation.
In its fourth year, the forum reflects both Indonesia's success in moving from dictatorship to representative government, and the country's efforts to parlay that reputation into diplomatic gains and geo-political cachet.
''Do not forget: democracy is in the business of hope,'' Yudhoyono told delegates. ''Elections are only one of the tools of democracy, and building a mature democracy takes a lot more than just holding elections.''
Tolerance, the rule of law and human rights are all fundamental to building a true democratic state, Yudhoyono said.
''Change can be for the better or for worse. And democracies around the world usually have four evolving scenarios: they can either improve, stagnate, decay or fail. This means that democratic success has to be built, earned and improvised every step of the way.''
Few would take issue with Yudhoyono's assessment of the democratic challenge. But to use his calculus of democratic evolution, Indonesia is, at best, stagnating. In some areas, it is decaying. That it is happening under the President's watch is all the more disappointing.
As a senior general during the last years of the Suharto dictatorship, Yudhoyono played a pivotal role in persuading the military to embrace democracy and forfeit its central role in society.
Re-elected handsomely as President in 2009 on an anti-corruption platform and a commitment to Indonesia's constitutionally enshrined principles of religious pluralism, Yudhoyono was delivered a strong mandate for reform.
Yet, after ''getting most of the major things right'' in its initial transition from authoritarianism, reforms have been largely absent since 2005, the year after Yudhoyono first took office, says Marcus Mietzner, an Australian National University scholar.
''The second generation of reforms which institutionalise democracy have never materialised,'' he argues.
To be sure, Indonesia has elections, lots of them. It has the region's most vibrant free press, a thriving civil society and a Constitutional Court that is independent and helmed by an outspoken chief judge.
But, to be blunt, Indonesia's political culture is defective, dominated by horse trading among parties and parliamentarians for the spoils of power.
Political parties lack any strong ideological or policy footing. The national parliament is dominated by committees, and there is widespread evidence that members frequently receive kickbacks for awarding lucrative contracts and appointments, or allocating budget funds.
Thanks to the rampant corruption - both for personal enrichment and to build war chests to compete in the next election - all of the political parties have skeletons in their closets and use the committee system to launch inquiries to embarrass each other, or defend their own personal or party political interests.
Policy development and the passage of important legislation ends up coming a distant second.
Moreover, there is no coherent political opposition that offers an alternative to government or holds it to account.
Indeed, as Mietzner argues, the battle for ongoing reform in Indonesia is now best understood as a contest between anti-reformist elements in the political elite and civil society, represented by activists, non-government organisations and some media outlets.
Anti-democratic forces reside in all of the country's political parties and most of its institutions, he maintains, and they are fighting a rearguard action against civil society to reduce the ''excessive empowerment'' of the citizenry.
Their influence can be seen in moves to end direct elections for provincial and district leaders, the erosion of protections for religious minorities and a consistent campaign to wind back the power of the Corruption Eradication Commission, the country's independent graft-busting organisation.
This rollback has also led to an assault on the independence and competence of Indonesia's National Election Commission. The law has been changed to allow party hacks to take board seats on the country's electoral regulator while its resources remain inadequate.
The 2009 presidential poll was marred by significant irregularities, including incomplete voter lists that left many disenfranchised. There was also a large number of invalid votes.
The margin of Yudhoyono's victory ensured that the problems did not undermine his legitimacy. While there is a program to clean up the electoral roll and computerise it, the process is difficult in a country as large and dispersed as Indonesia, especially as its citizens become increasingly mobile.
The project is unlikely to be finished in time for the 2014 election, and the list of potential candidates is hugely uninspiring, a legacy of the defective political culture, the need for large sums of money to run a campaign and the hold the elites still maintain on the major parties.
There is a distinct possibility that there will be a close result in 2014. Given the massive problems with electoral management, such an outcome will almost certainly lead to legal challenges, political instability and even conflict if there is a mass mobilisation of rival supporters.
Indonesia's transition from dictatorship to democracy has been widely hailed, and rightly so. It has been an immense strategic benefit to Australia that its near neighbour has found a measure of stability that many feared impossible when Suharto was toppled.
However, this great democratic journey has stalled. Further consolidation is needed and there is a danger in complacency.
In his speech last week, Yudhoyono counselled that Indonesia's experience suggested that democratic transition was ''more difficult'' in the early years but became easier as time passed.
It may be, however, that some of the most arduous challenges for Indonesian democracy still lie ahead.