On April 17, 2019, Indonesia will hold its presidential and local elections simultaneously for the first time in history. The presidential election will likely be a rematch of 2014, a highly competitive race which pitted two outsider populists: Jakarta governor, former furniture salesman, and eventual winner Joko Widodo (Jokowi); and former senior general and estranged Suharto son-in-law Prabowo Subianto (Prabowo).
Indonesian democracy – a victim of its own success?
In many ways this election is another test for Indonesia’s young democracy, widely renowned as one of democratization’s success stories. Twenty years after the fall of Suharto, Indonesia has defied the predictions of many observers and joined the ranks of Asia’s stable democracies. According to the political scientist Edward Aspinall, this success is largely due to the way Indonesian democracy has accommodated, rather than excluded, its three major groups of potential spoilers: the military, Islamist political forces, and ethno-regional elites. All of Indonesia’s post-democratization leaders have included these groups in their ruling coalitions, by buying them off with patronage and leaving their core interests untouched.
Thus, success has come at a cost: a trade-off between democratic success and democratic quality. While these potential spoilers accept the rules of the democratic game, they continue to exert deleterious effects on the quality of democracy. The upcoming elections – and the candidates running in it – are poised to highlight these issues.
Jokowi – the outsider turned ultimate insider
Jokowi, the first Indonesian president to come from outside the pre-democratization elite, has nevertheless proven willing to make the same tradeoffs as previous presidents. Like all Indonesian presidents, Jokowi has ushered in some political and economic reform. But Jokowi has initiated these reforms so in a manner that suggests he has no interest in upending the oligarchic nature of Indonesian democracy. For example, like his predecessors, he continues to appoint former generals with dubious human rights records to important Cabinet posts, such as his defense minister Wiranto.
Likewise, while Jokowi’s coalition started out with a minority of seats in the legislature, some adroit negotiating and horse-trading has since given him a majority. Losing elections does not seem to matter in Indonesia, for as long as ruling parties agree to share power and patronage resources with their erstwhile rivals. Political scientists Dan Slater and Erica Simmons call this arrangement “promiscuous powersharing,” where parties wipe away partisan differences and erase opposition entirely by bringing their rivals into “party cartels.”
A one-horse race?
Jokowi’s political and economic success has yielded quite the return in early polls, which show him with a commanding lead over all his potential rivals. There is even some likelihood that Jokowi might run unopposed, should Prabowo fail to obtain the endorsement of parties that make up at least 20% of the legislature needed to run for president before the August deadline. Prabowo’s Gerindra party has 13 percent so far, and with five of ten parties having declared for Jokowi, the door is closing fast for Prabowo.
A single-candidate race would be a serious setback for Indonesian democracy. Typically such uncompetitive races are more characteristic of competitive authoritarian regimes such as Cambodia. But in Indonesia’s supposedly competitive democracy, this outcome would breed greater cynicism in revealing the collusive oligarchy underneath. Moreover, this may provide Jokowi’s coalition license to act in increasingly undemocratic ways after the election, as they did in passing a law (which Jokowi ultimately vetoed) that outlawed criticism of members of parliament.
How the New Order may yet strike back
But should Prabowo manage to put together a viable coalition, he will start out as the definite underdog, albeit with some possible advantages. He remains allied with many of Indonesia’s increasingly powerful Islamist groups, with whom it is rumored he played a key role in protest actions against Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok). Ahok, a Chinese Christian, was later jailed for blasphemy over remarks against Islam he allegedly made at a campaign rally. A Prabowo campaign would give these groups another national platform to nudge Indonesian democracy towards a less pluralist, more Islamic orientation.
Prabowo also has the option of reenacting his 2014 campaign, where he offered an authoritarian populist alternative to Jokowi’s more genial, reformist populism. While born of the establishment himself, he gave speeches that decried elites as “corrupt” and responsible for selling the country’s resources off cheaply to foreigners. He also showed antipathy towards democracy, calling direct elections wasteful and advocating for a return to the autocratic 1945 constitution. His 2014 campaign appearances also employed extensive use of nationalist imagery from the 50’s and 60’s, in a clear throwback to the strongman rule of Sukarno and Suharto.
Although this narrowly failed to capture the popular imagination in 2014, it may yet do so in 2019. Indonesia has become a more unequal society since democratization, with its Gini coefficient – an indicator of inequality – rising from 0.3 to 0.4 between 2000 and 2015. Moreover, a 2017 ISEAS survey also showed that corruption also remained the most important issue for 38.8% of Indonesians. A 2017 Pew survey found that people’s belief in democracy was also coupled with trust in leaders to solve the country’s problems – suggesting that their patience with democracy may wear thin should reforms stall and the economy slow down.
Jokowi would do well not to underestimate Prabowo and act strictly in the consensual manner of all previous Indonesian leaders, if he is to win in 2019 and preserve Indonesian democracy. For one, he should use his remaining political capital on strengthening his current coalition rather than attempting to include everyone and bulldoze the opposition. He must use his campaign to strengthen his countrymen’s commitment to democracy without pandering to their anti-pluralist tendencies. And if elected, as is likely to happen, he must accelerate the pace of political and economic reforms to maintain popular trust in democracy.
Should he and his coalition fail to accomplish all of these, the 2019 elections may prove Indonesian democracy more fragile than has been previously realized.
(Photo – President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo converses with Prabowo Subianto at the Presidential Palace in November, 2016.) (Antara/Widodo S. Jusuf via the Jakarta Post)
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