Insights and Analysis

Watching and Waiting: Indonesia’s Upcoming Elections

April 10, 2019

By Nicola Nixon and Mochamad Mustafa

On April 17, Indonesia will hold its sixth democratic election since the Reformasi protests brought down the authoritarian government of President Suharto. On streets thick with election posters, a mix of hope and trepidation fills the air. Development has begun to move faster in this complex archipelago of over 260 million people, particularly in the urban centers, and the standard of living is starting to improve after two decades of fits and starts. With clear vernal skies, a new underground rail system, and the macet—the capital’s infamously jammed traffic—moving smoothly as never before, Jakarta has a distinct spring in its step. Yet, as elections approach, the complex tensions beneath Indonesia’s sometimes fragile equilibrium—religious and ethnic differences, identity politics, and the massive gap between a wealthy and powerful elite and a poor and vulnerable population—are on vivid display to the world.

On the surface, the 2019 elections are an echo of 2014. The rags-to-riches incumbent, President Jokowi, now sporting a less secular demeanor and with debate raging over his first-term achievements, again faces former general Prabowo Subianto, with his less-than-resplendent record on human rights.

A multitude of new parties, the nouveaux riches of Indonesian politics, have been active this election season. As Indonesia’s government has decentralized, new centers of money and influence have arisen in many of its 514 newly empowered districts, and next week’s elections will turn as much on local as on national issues—that is, when they turn on the issues at all. Recent additions to Indonesia’s complicated political landscape rely on these powerful elites in local communities to fund their operations. These parties are money driven, personality centered, and powered by social media in a country saturated with mobile phones. While the Solidarity Partai stands out as having no direct link to the powerful Suharto or Sukarno dynasties, two new parties are connected to the Suharto name: Garuda, founded by a Suharto daughter, and Berkarya, founded by a son.

Large swaths of the country’s vast and vibrant civil society, previously vocal supporters of Jokowi, are taking a back seat in this election. There is a sense of ambivalence towards both presidential candidates—not just Prabowo—particularly among those who trace their lineage to the protest movements of 1998. That ambivalence is apparently mutual: a few weeks ago, one of Jokowi’s inner circle was heard to declare, “We can’t work with civil society.”

Stepping into the breach, school and university “alumni associations” have emerged as a new force for social advocacy. Political parties court these huge, membership-based alumni groups, while members of civil society organizations have joined them to stay relevant. In a sense, “alumni association” has become a politically acceptable term for “civil society” in a context where civil society represents an ideal of human rights and individual freedoms belonging to an era now past. Jokowi’s choice of Ma’ruf Amin, head of the Indonesian Ulama Council, as his running mate is emblematic of this antisecular trend. Amin has issued fatwas against the Ahmadiyya, a marginalized religious minority, and joined those who argued that former Jakarta governor Ahok, a Christian, should be jailed for blasphemy for claiming that Muslims are free to choose non-Muslim leaders. Amin’s nomination bodes ill for the outcome of these elections and for civil society itself.

This election, the relawan—the thousands upon thousands of local volunteers who took to the streets to mobilize voters—have seemingly disappeared, at least from the election coverage. At the same time, social media has burgeoned. Reminiscent of the U.S. and European flash mobs of the 1990s, this election is full of “events” announced on social media and attracting thousands of interested voters and observers, the first of which was a huge rally at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta at which Jokowi spoke some weeks ago. Not to be outdone, Prabowo held a “mega-rally” at the same stadium on April 7, claiming attendance of over a million.

While President Jokowi routinely attracts hundreds or thousands to his speaking events, he has also been challenged by social media. The hashtag #gantipresident, “change the president,” is at the heart of a debate over Jokowi’s posture toward the nation’s rising illiberalism and the competing discourses on Islam among Indonesia’s 260 million citizens. Some paint quite a dark picture of a president who came to power promising liberal democracy and more equitable development, accusing him of abandoning that promise and turning to illiberal methods, including the use of legal action to ban or silence opponents.

While there is truth in these observations, they are too simplistic. Jokowi clearly has his policy comfort zones—land clearing and the environment, infrastructure development, and anticorruption among the most obvious. But he has been weak or ineffective in engaging with the political dynamics of religion, preferring to avoid rather than address the issue. Since Jakarta’s deeply contentious gubernatorial election in 2016 and the subsequent imprisonment of Ahok, the defeated incumbent, rising intolerance has become an urgent public issue. Yet, the underlying ideological competition and confrontation between moderate Islam (in particular Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim mass organization) and the more radical Wahhabist strain has been ongoing for some time, and its social impact, in the form of rising intolerance, had already been felt at least since the decade in which Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was in power. A common depiction of this election is of a sudden erosion of democracy, tolerance, and inclusion. Arguably, however, that erosion has been happening for well over a decade.

By dodging divisive religious discourse, Jokowi effectively left himself without a position or an agenda on one of the most crucial issues facing Indonesia today. He now has no choice but to shift towards a more overtly religious platform.

And with that platform, according to the polls, he remains in the lead.

On April 17, despite recent efforts by Prabowo’s supporters to sow suspicion of the electoral process, Indonesia’s many local, regional, and national contests are quite likely to proceed smoothly. But there is a popular Indonesian saying: demokrasi prosedural baik tapi demokrasi substansial buruk—procedural democracy is fine, but substantial democracy has a long way to go. Indonesia’s procedural democracy has, in fact, come a long way, as this election may testify. Despite the severe technical challenges posed by Indonesia’s complex geography, April 17 will see legislative elections from the district to the national level in addition to the much-watched presidential ballot. It is a hugely ambitious effort, and evidence of the robustness of the democratic process. Yet, the intolerant discourse, laced with exclusionary identity politics, that has punctuated the last few weeks of campaigning, drowning out the articulation of clear or coherent policy platforms that might address the country’s urgent development needs, suggests that Indonesia’s substantial democracy is indeed a work in progress.

We watch and wait.

Nicola Nixon is The Asia Foundation’s governance director and Mochamad Mustafa is a democracy and governance program manager. 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: Elections


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