From a country that was governed under a Guided Democracy system to the New Order regime, Indonesia has subsequently undergone a period of political reforms throughout its years as an independent country. After five years under president Joko Widodo’s administration — who is more commonly known as “Jokowi” — Indonesia held its presidential election in April. While Indonesia often champions itself as a country that successfully transitioned from the reigns of authoritarian Suharto to a functional democratic state, due to recent events, the country’s democratic status is one that is often contested.
Scholar Fukuoka characterizes Indonesia’s current administration as an “oligarchical” or “illiberal democracy”. In the past few years, Indonesia has witnessed a myriad of events that project dangerous imprints to the country’s democratic state. Electoral candidates have resorted to populist methods which exclusively cater to the majority of the population. Through the polarization achieved by populism, the rise of fundamental Islamic politics is ultimately fueled as a result. Both populism and Islamic politics play hand in hand in Indonesia’s democratic backslide.
The Problem with Populism
In contrast to populism present in Western powers that primarily focus on immigration, trade, and border control, populism appeal in Indonesia tap into collective frustrations among aspirational middle classes over the inefficacy of state institutions to accommodate new voices and provide basic goods and services. According to a report by Kanupriya Kapoor and Gayatri Suroyo in Reuter World News, Jokowi took a populist stance in his recent election campaign against Prabowo Subianto. (Although the election was held on April 17, 2019, the results have not yet been officially announced.) The campaign strategies used by candidates Jokowi and Subianto are characterized as populist. These methods were present in the 2014 presidential election, where Jokowi previously defeated Subianto by a narrow margin. At the same time, the candidates were associated with two different forms of populism. Subianto focuses on criticizing governmental leaders for working with businesses to advance their own interests rather than those of the nation’s people. Jokowi, on the other hand, dodged his previous angle of emphasizing the economy and infrastructure and emphasized on welfare and other social programs. But what was most surprising and perhaps opportunistic was Jokowi’s vice president, Ma’ruf Amin — an influential Islamic scholar as his vice-president. Amin has publicly voiced his distaste for the LGBTQ community, religious minorities like Ahmadiyas and other minority groups. This decision was obviously aimed to secure the votes of the Muslim majority.
In the 2019 campaign, as the incumbent president, Jokowi shifted from his previous position through placing an emphasis on issues pertaining to social welfare. Unfortunately, Jokowi’s portrayal displays signs of democratic backsliding; taking a populist stance results to the very likely prospect of political hyperpolarization. It can also undermine the rights of certain groups while favoring the rights of others. Polarization generated from populism has in effect fostered the rise of Islamic politics in the country.
Islamic or Identity Politics?
Recent Indonesian elections have shown a growth in power among Islamic voters. An example is found in the 2010 mayoral election in Medan, a city located in North Sumatra. The candidates in the race were Rahudman Harahap, a Muslim politician, and Sofyan Tan, was raised as a Buddhist with Chinese heritage. Supporters of Rahudman argued that it was the duty of Medan’s Muslims to vote for their candidate. In making this case, they depicted the election as a struggle between Muslims and “infidels”. Many saw Rahudman’s subsequent victory as a loss for the ideals of inclusivism and pluralism in Indonesia.
In 2016, Islamic politics gained further attention when Muslims staged protests throughout the country. Many of the demonstrators sought a stronger Islamist orientation in Indonesian politics. The movement arose in response to the feeling of being excluded from politically excluded. However, this case has increased polarization in the nation and has contributed to the risk of certain groups receiving more rights than others. In addition, the government has reacted to the rise of Islamic politics with an action that has increased the threat of further democratic backsliding.
Jokowi issued Perppu — a decree allows the Law and Human Rights Ministry to disband a mass organization within a week after issuing only one warning letter. The dismantlement of a group operates under the pretense that it is deemed a “threat” to the country. Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, an Islamist group, was the first organization to be targeted by the ban. This action sets an alarming yet familiar precedent and may lead to other groups, including human rights groups, being summarily dissolved. During the New Order regime, President Suharto issued a similar law used to quash his dissidents. The authorization of Perppu signals a serious attack on legal protections of freedom of association in Indonesia.
Unfortunately, the country has taken showcased a decline in democratic values in recent times. According to a report published by the Freedom House, although Indonesia has made significant improvements in democracy in the period following 1998, numerous problems continue to exist and even foster within the country. For civil liberties, Indonesia received a score of 4 out of 7 with a political rights rank of only 2 out of 7.
Indonesia presents subtle but early signs of democratic backsliding. Enabling the populist stance of the electoral candidate and the rise of Islamic politics fueled by populism create a dangerous framework that could potentially result in the decay of the democracy. Through the cases discussed, it is apparent that the current government only works in favor of the majority and upper-middle-class or elite.