Imperfect Democracy is Indonesia’s Least Bad Option

Rising Islamic extremism and Chinese influence cloud the pre-election agenda

To outside observers, the fluid and transitory nature of allegiances among Indonesia’s political elites can seem puzzling. In the political cauldron of Jakarta, seemingly bitter rivals can emerge overnight as allies and old friends as foes.

Take the recent speculation that Prabowo Subianto, a rival to Joko Widodo in the 2014 presidential election, could emerge as his vice presidential running mate in next year’s election. Prabowo has a checkered history in Indonesia, not least for his alleged involvement in human rights abuses as an army special forces commander during Indonesia’s tumultuous democratic transition. Now Prabowo has resurrected himself as a wily political operator who, as leader of the Greater Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), led an opposition coalition that mounted a highly effective — if dirty — campaign against Widodo in 2014.

Gerindra’s tactic was to erode Widodo’s support by sowing doubt about his ethnicity, and his religious and political values. He was variously accused of being a Christian, a communist and Chinese — a triple negative in a country with a Muslim majority of around 87% and a history that includes a bloody anti-communist purge.

Similar tactics were used to devastating effect in last year’s Jakarta gubernatorial election against incumbent Basuki Tjahaya Purnama, widely known as Ahok, a key ally of Widodo. An ethnic Chinese-Indonesian, Ahok had lost some public support through forced evictions in Jakarta slums and had offended others with his brash style. But the intensity of hate speech in social media campaigns, combined with huge protests, meant he not only lost to a Gerindra-backed candidate but also ended up imprisoned under Indonesia’s blasphemy law.

Amid the dangerously heated political climate following that election, Indonesia is now entering a pivotal moment ahead of regional elections in June, and legislative and presidential elections early next year. The key question is whether Prabowo and Indonesia’s other powerful elites will choose principle over prejudice as they jostle for position.

Although a Widodo-Prabowo ticket may seem unlikely or unpalatable to many, some insiders see such a compromise as necessary to contain rising intolerance and protect Indonesia’s increasingly fragile social fabric. But it is difficult to imagine how Prabowo’s imposing and infamously testy disposition could deliver Jokowi the cabinet stability and policy coherence he requires.

Indonesia’s political elite, including Megawati Sukarnoputri, leader of the ruling PDI-P party; Jusuf Kalla, Widodo’s vice president; Surya Paloh, a powerful media tycoon; and former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, are fundamentally nationalist in orientation. They are deeply committed to a united republic, as enshrined in Indonesia’s pluralistic Pancasila ideology, not an Islamic version of it. Nor do they wish to see a weakened and divided country fall prey to the influence of hardline religious groups and extra-regional powers.

Either way, compromises will be necessary whether Jokowi’s team considers a coalition with Gerindra or captures support from the opposition.

There is a consensus among mainstream political parties on the need for faster economic growth. Indonesia’s expansion of around 5% last year was impressive relative to some other economies but is far short of what is needed to absorb the 1.7 million people entering the job market annually. The tax base remains low relative to the other nine members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, despite a recent tax amnesty. Although Widodo’s public approval rating is high and his government’s commitment to regulatory reform and infrastructure development is visible around major cities, there are concerns about the growing debt exposure of the state-owned enterprise sector.

China’s influence on the economy is a key issue. The country is Indonesia’s largest trading partner and a major source of investment for Widodo’s ambitious $350 billion-plus infrastructure agenda. The synergies between his push to turn Indonesia into a “global maritime fulcrum” and Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative seem obvious, but domestic anxiety about China’s “predatory capitalism,” as some critics see it, resonates strongly in Indonesia.

Rising Islamic extremism and Chinese influence cloud the pre-election agenda

There is little doubt that the coming election period will see a corresponding rise in economic nationalism targeting China as a lightning rod for resentment over foreign labor and poor-quality infrastructure projects. Fears that Beijing’s economic dominance will translate into political interference is a danger well-recognized by Indonesia’s political leaders, mindful of China’s divide et impera tactics in ASEAN.

Islam in Indonesia is becoming more conservative. In the 20 years since the demise of the Suharto regime, the jilbab (Islamic headscarf) has become more common. There is now greater moral pressure from conservative Islamic forces on women to change their dress and behavior.

This moral conservatism is increasingly reflected in legislative terms. Parliament is debating changes to Indonesia’s criminal code which would see consensual sex banned between non-married adults and homosexuality criminalized. When the government last July banned Islamic hardline group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, the move was criticized by conservative Islamic elements. Elites now need to be seen to support conservative Islamic values, which may impede measures to contain radicalism.

Although Indonesia is a vibrant electoral democracy, its earlier promise of a liberal future is far from being realized. In a recent development, Indonesia’s legislators, who frequently find themselves the target of corruption investigations, have sought to erode the country’s Corruption Eradication Commission and use their legislative powers to protect themselves. On Feb. 12, parliament even passed measures that would criminalize public criticism of Indonesia’s legislators. Widodo has not yet ratified the law, although it will likely be enacted even without his endorsement.

Although some question the future of Indonesia’s pluralist democracy, there are powerful balancing forces in Indonesia’s major secular nationalist parties and its powerful security forces. Likewise, Indonesia’s established Islamic organizations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, with their commitment to the preservation of a tolerant and inclusive form of Indonesian Islam also form a bulwark against Islamic intolerance.

Despite Indonesia’s many challenges, its political elites still subscribe to the sanctity of the unitary state and the ethnic and religious pluralism enshrined in the country’s motto “Unity in Diversity”. A stable, but imperfect and increasingly Islamic democracy may still be the best option for Indonesia and the region.

Photo Credit : There is speculation that Prabowo Subianto, left, a rival candidate to Joko Widodo in the 2014 presidential election, could emerge as his vice presidential running mate. | Antara/Widodo S. Jusuf

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