First, the good news: the United Nations Human Rights Council Democracy Index has rated Indonesia Southeast Asia’s highest scoring democracy, demonstrating how remarkable Indonesia’s progress has been since the fall of General Suharto 20 years ago.
“Things look fairly good from the bird’s eye perspective,” says Tom Pepinsky, a faculty member of the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University. “On balance, Indonesia remains a remarkable success story, given the challenges of democratisation in 1998, and [the] trends throughout the region.”
But take a closer look and one realises that all is not well. This was made clear just weeks after the UN released its ranking, when the Economist Intelligence Unit showed a far more dire picture—Indonesia’s democracy ranking had fallen 20 spots in just a year, the biggest drop in Asia. The report pointed to 2017’s racially-charged campaign that took down’s Jakarta’s previously popular, ethnic Chinese-Christian Governor, Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, as a key reason for the decline.
“This is not surprising,” says Wirya Adiwena, head of international relations at the Jakarta-based Habibie Center. “Democratisation has proven to be a wide road. Its wave brought not only democratic elements but also non-democratic elements—such as vigilantism—that were similarly suppressed during Suharto’s three decades of authoritarian rule. These elements are now in open contestation.”
Indonesia’s size and diversity has always made it a challenge to govern. During the Suharto era, the answer to controlling this vast nation was military strength and centralised power, which led to Jakarta becoming wealthy while outlying islands remained poor and underdeveloped. After the fall of Suharto, a new system that would give more power to outlying regions was needed, but had to be designed well. In the neighbouring Philippines, decentralisation (including the landmark 1991 Local Government Code) was abused by the traditional landowning clans to build up political fiefdoms underpinned by private armies and patronage networks. Yugoslavia, which broke into several different pieces following the death of Tito and the subsequent Balkan wars, was also a cautionary tale. There was a real fear that giving power to the provinces would empower regionalism, which could lead to a breakup and more violence.
The solution was to decentralise differently. The provinces would remain, essentially, weak, as they had during the Suharto era. Instead, the country’s myriad districts (kecematan) and cities (kota) would be empowered to control more finances and make decisions independent of Jakarta.
“The assumption, and quite correctly so, was that there would be less galvanising power in the district level that may lead to balkanisation of the country,” says Sandra Hamid from The Asia Foundation, an international development organisation. “At the same time this policy provides more space for citizens to articulate their interests and be part of the nation.”
“It’s not really the party that matters as much, but who is the candidate”
Restrictions were put in place to limit fragmentation. Regional parties are not allowed except in Aceh, and even there only at the provincial level. Indonesian law mandates that political parties maintain a certain level of support across the country to hold seats in Parliament, making them nationalistic by law. Crucially, the bans against the Indonesian Communist Party and its other left-wing brethren have remained in place despite the advent of democracy; the stigma against leftist politics means that none of Indonesia’s 13 political parties represented in this year’s provincial races hail from that side of the political spectrum.
In fact, it’s hard to really figure out what ideologies Indonesia’s political parties represent. There are four major Islamic parties, but they remain small, and none are openly calling for sharia law. The rest identify mostly as nationalist and are more driven by the personalities of their leaders than their policy positions.
“It’s not really the party that matters as much, but who is the candidate, and the personal connections that are cultivated through local network[s],” says Jessica Soedirgo, a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.
Case in point: The Democrat Party was created by former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and remains a family affair, though it’s now his son, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, that the party seeks to promote. The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), of which current President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is a member, was founded by Indonesia’s first President Sukarno, and his daughter, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, remains as its head.
“Everything has become so personalised,” says Soedirgo. “It’s really the individual that matters, and that why you don’t see ideology as much… people don’t vote on ideology.”
Islamic radicalism: a minority movement
This connects to the 2017 Jakarta Governor’s race. While many point to Islam as the determining factor, it probably had more to do with the unique personality of Ahok. He was a polarising figure for many reasons beyond his minority ethnic and racial background, including his abrasive and confrontational style, his Sumatran roots, and his controversial slum clearances which alienated the urban poor who identified with its victims. Nor did Islamists win the election; while Anies Baswedan heavily played up his Muslim identity by attending mass prayers and dressing in Islamic dress, his displays of faith were more opportunistic than ideological, akin to American politicians who emphasise their Christian piety on the campaign trail. Ahok catalysed the movement against him, but a year later, with him languishing in jail, attempts to channel it to other causes has proved fruitless.
“Overall, Islamic radicalism remains a minority fascination and remains a minority movement”
“There’s no point pretending that there isn’t a radical Islamic group in Indonesia which is clearly interested in an Islamic state… but Ahok played into the hands of those people,” says Krishna Sen, a professor at the University of Western Australia who focuses on Indonesia. “The anti-Ahok Islamic mobilisation certainly did not turn into a movement. Overall, Islamic radicalism remains a minority fascination and remains a minority movement.”
Focusing on Jakarta and Islam also neglects the rest of the massive and extremely diverse country, which spans 5,120 kilometres from east to west and 1,760 kilometres from north to south, with over 700 languages and over 250 religions. Jakarta is Southeast Asia’s largest city, but it is still only accounts for 10 million out of over 260 million citizens. Whether Ahok was an exception or the beginning of a trend will only become clearer after two important upcoming elections.
The coming election season
First, regional elections at the provincial and district level will take place in about half the country this June, including the country’s largest provinces in Java and Sumatra. These races are already off to a quick start, with political parties making candidate selections earlier this month. Billboards and posters have begun popping up on streets all across the contested provinces.
“It is not likely for simultaneous regional elections this year to encounter [a] similar level of identity issue mobilization—ethnicity, religion, race, et cetera,” says Bawono Kumoro, Head of Politics and Government at the Habibie Center. “This does not mean that such issues will not be played. They will, but with significantly less impact compared to [the] Jakarta regional election.”
Most of the attention will be focused on how the 2018 results will impact the 2019 presidential election, in which President Jokowi will run for a second five-year term. Many expect him to face a right-wing challenger, perhaps his 2014 opponent, Prabowo Subianto. It was Prabowo who supported Anies Baswedan, who won the governorship of Jakarta last year after using Islam against Jokowi’s ally Ahok. Could history repeat itself, and what role will Islam play, especially considering that Jokowi himself is a Muslim?
“Is there a candidate, or a ticket that wants to really push a strong Islamist alternative, and campaigns for a particular way of Indonesian Islam that’s less inclusive?” asks Pepinsky. “We don’t know who that ticket is going to be… but I think that is the thing to watch.”
Such elections could potentially be a catalyst for intolerance. Although the Setara Institute, an Indonesian non-profit that monitors crimes against religious minorities, found that the situation in 2017 actually improved, they still caution “that the upcoming regional elections in June and general elections in 2019 may see the politicisation of religious and social differences, which may negatively affect government efforts to promote tolerance and religious freedom for all citizens.”
Jokowi himself is not immune, and may be using the war on drugs (including the use of the death penalty) as a way to portray himself as a strong, forceful nationalist leader. The political climate, in any case, favours the right, which means that there’s little momentum to improve the situation in Papua, address the grievances of 1965-66 or 1975-99, or open up restrictions on regional and left-wing parties and ideology.
No one ever said democracy was going to be easy. Indonesia has by no means achieved a perfect democracy—if it’s even possible for such a system to exist—but its current situation only pales in comparison to its own recent past.
Set in the context of its region and the world, Indonesia comes off very well. It has moved to the right, but compared to neighbouring Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore, its swing to authoritarianism is mild; compared to other, more mature democracies in Europe and the USA, it has avoided much of the extremist rhetoric and xenophobic politicians that other democracies have elected; compared to other Muslim-majority countries, it remains more peaceful, stable, and democratic. It is places like Indonesia—the world’s third largest democracy, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, and ASEAN’s most democratic country—which are crucial if the world is to reverse its current retreat from democracy.
What happens between now and the presidential election in September 2019 will give a clearer idea of what’s next in Indonesia’s evolving political landscape, and what direction it will go.
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Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on social and economic issues in developing countries, and has specific expertise in Southeast Asia.