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Indonesian democracy’s gathering clouds

21 September 2018

On balance, it’s been a good first term for the Indonesian president. But is he putting the gains in danger?

Right:

What will his second term deliver to Indonesians? Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

What will his second term deliver to Indonesians? Mick Tsikas/AAP Image


At a time when democracy seems to be in retreat around the world, Indonesia is its standout success. Since President Suharto was overthrown in 1998, the world’s fourth most populous country has embraced free speech, democratic elections and a free press as if reclaiming its lost birthright. The military is off the streets. Election after election has seen power pass peacefully from one elected leader to another.

When you add this democratic transition to Indonesia’s longstanding tradition of religious tolerance — in the world’s largest Muslim country — and a solid pace of economic growth that has doubled real incomes in twenty years, it has been a remarkable success among developing democracies, even if few Australians seem to grasp that.

But now clouds are gathering, and its future is uncertain. Last Friday a conference of Indonesia experts at the Australian National University heard that under the man who seemed to epitomise its democratic transition, president Joko Widodo (Jokowi), Indonesia is lurching towards a more authoritarian style of government. Conservative Islam is growing increasingly powerful, the army and police are being used for politically partisan ends, and dissidents and those seen by Muslim clerics as deviants are experiencing rising repression.

Jokowi was a successful furniture manufacturer before entering politics, and his main policy priorities as president had been to build infrastructure, cut red tape, and run a sound economic and fiscal policy. That has been a stunning success. Jakarta today is a city of infrastructure projects under construction everywhere you look — a metro railway, tramlines, exclusive bus routes — and every part of this country has its own projects under way.

But those priorities have changed in the wake of the defining event of his presidency: the dramatic fall from power last year of his former deputy and successor as mayor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a clever, some say arrogant, Chinese Christian known as Ahok, who is now in jail for blasphemy after accusing his enemies of distorting the Qur’an.

With Ahok behind bars, some of his enemies turned their sights on Jokowi. Yes, he is a Javanese Muslim, which puts him in a very different category. (Some Muslims do not accept the idea that non-Muslims should be able to rule over them.) But enemies have questioned even that, or alleged that he is not a real Muslim. The local elections in June went badly for his party, the PDI-P, headed by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, which won just three of the sixteen posts contested for provincial governors (premiers).

Jokowi has never lost an election, and he is bending over backwards to make sure he doesn’t lose this one.

Next Sunday sees the official start of Indonesia’s 2019 presidential election campaign, even though election day is not until 17 April. Restrictive rules have ensured that there are only two candidates, making it a rematch between Jokowi and the man he defeated in 2014, the Trumpish retired general Prabowo Subianto. The polls show Jokowi well ahead of his rival by a two-to-one majority. But then, the polls were similar at this stage in 2014, and that ended up as a very close race.

As Tom Power of the ANU explained at the conference, Jokowi’s strategy is to head off the risk that the Muslim campaign that brought down Ahok will be used against him. And hence, with vice-president Jusuf Kalla ineligible to seek another term, he has chosen as his running mate Ma’ruf Amin, the seventy-five-year-old conservative chairman of Indonesia’s clerical body, the Indonesian Ulama Council, or MUI, and president of the mass Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, or NU.

It was a stunning embrace of the enemy. Amin played a crucial part in the campaign against Ahok, issuing a “religious opinion” in November 2016 that Ahok’s comments amounted to blasphemy. That ruling triggered the massive street protests that shook Jakarta in the following month, followed by Ahok’s defeat at the polls and his sentence to eighteen months in jail.

In what Dr Power calls “the post-Ahok landscape,” Jokowi chose to seek accommodation with Amin. “NU has become a target of patronage,” Power said, quoting an official of the group as saying: “Whatever Kyai Ma’ruf asked, Jokowi gave him. This way, Kyai Ma’ruf is comfortable, and Jokowi is comfortable. They have become closer and closer, and now NU is always at the side of the government.”

The choice of Ma’ruf may have neutralised the threat of an organised Muslim campaign against Jokowi, but it could have a cost. Jokowi had already chosen the progressive chief justice of the Constitutional Court, Mahfud MD, as his running mate, which would have been a more plausible pairing. But that choice ran into opposition from the parties in his alliance, who feared that it would make Mahfud the heir apparent, and from the NU, which wanted one of its own. So the president gave way.

“Jokowi was made to look weak and beholden to party bosses,” Power concluded. “He disappointed many of his own non-religious supporters, who remembered [Ma’ruf’s] role in the Ahok case.

“The question is, to what extent will he [Ma’ruf] exert influence? Will he sway Jokowi’s administration to be less tolerant? If he said (as he has in the past) that homosexuals should be in prison, what would Jokowi do? It could be very damaging.”

The conference focused on the rights of minorities in Indonesia, including LGBTI communities, religious minorities seen by the MUI as deviant (such as Shi’ite and Ahmadiyya Muslims) and ethnic minorities such as the Chinese. While there have been some steps forward for human rights in the courts — and for the disabled, in the legislature — many of those decisions remain unimplemented. The steps backwards are far more visible.

Take the case of Meiliana, a forty-four-year-old Chinese Buddhist living in North Sumatra. In 2016 she complained about the excessive noise from the loudspeakers of the mosque close to her home. The faithful were outraged. Someone quickly organised a mob of Islamic extremists, which ransacked and set fire to fourteen Buddhist temples. The courts then acted: not against the arsonists, but against Meiliana. Like Ahok, she was sentenced to eighteen months’ jail on a charge of blasphemy — just for making a complaint.

This is not the Indonesia of old. Historian Robert Cribb, also of the ANU, interpreted it as the “pious Muslims” taking back the social dominance they lost when Indonesia was set up under a constitution enshrining Sukarno’s philosophy of Pancasila (five principles). Pancasila prescribed religious tolerance, recognised five religions (now six), and gave the Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, Protestant and now Confucian minorities equal rights with the Muslim majority.

“They want it to be clear who is in control,” Professor Cribb said. “It is as if they are saying collectively, ‘We will decide the meaning of Islamic law in this country, and the terms in which it is introduced.’ Tolerance has been seriously eroded. It worries me that something very special about Indonesia is under threat.”

It is not just under threat in Indonesia. Professor Cribb drew parallels with the fatwa issued by the Murdoch press here against Yassmin Abdel-Magied for “civic blasphemy” in suggesting that Anzac Day should also be a time for remembering the injustices committed by Australians — and the excoriation of senator Fraser Anning by some because he used the phrase “final solution” in a speech, unaware that uttering those words is a form of blasphemy to some.

It is not only diminishing tolerance that worries Tom Power and Murdoch University’s Jacqui Baker. Baker cited Jokowi’s regular calls for police and army officers to promote his goåvernment’s achievements in their villages and kampungs, and the growing number of Duterte-style extrajudicial killings of drug sellers and petty criminals. “It sounds the alarm for further democratic backsliding,” she said.

Power noted that the conservative Islam embodied by Ma’ruf and the MUI has little in common with the radical Islam of the terrorists. Indeed, during this period Jokowi has given the green light to increasing repression of “anti-Pancasila” groups, such as the Hizb ut-Tahrir, a global movement to establish a single Islamic caliphate to rule the world.

Indonesia has adopted an electoral system that restricts the number of candidates for high office by requiring presidential candidates, for example, to be supported by parties holding at least 20 per cent of the seats in parliament. Increasingly, Power pointed out, this is coming to mean no election at all, as there is little ideological difference between most of Indonesia’s parties, and everyone wants to be on the winning side.

In this year’s regional elections, he said, more than 10 per cent of the mayors and bupatis (heads of regions) standing faced no competition, either because no one else nominated or because courts ruled out rival candidates. Voters could vote either for the single candidate or for the empty column where a challenger was meant to be.

In Makassar, a city the size of Brisbane, the courts blocked the mayor from standing again after the parties decided to unite behind one of their own, Munafri Arifuddin. Faced with the choice of Munafri or the empty column, the city’s voters elected the empty column, creating a new first in Indonesia’s unusual democracy.

It nearly happened in the election for president. At one time even Prabowo faced trouble getting enough party support to be on the ballot. As Power recounted, Prabowo then went to Luhut Pandjaitan, one of Jokowi’s key ministers, and asked if Jokowi would allow him to join the ticket as his running mate — removing any need for an election. Negotiations began, but failed, Power said: “the stumbling block was reportedly disagreement over the distribution of cabinet spoils.”

Indonesian democracy is still standing. But, Power concluded, its quality is in decline.


Some commentators say Jokowi has focused on the wrong threat. As a Javanese Muslim, he is a much less vulnerable target for Islamists than Ahok was. Rather, the main threat to his re-election could come from economic problems.

That might seem extraordinary, given Indonesia’s record. Susan Olivia of the University of Waikato told the conference it has achieved consistent economic growth of 5 per cent or more. The budget is in relatively healthy shape — a deficit of 2.5 per cent of GDP, including all that infrastructure spending — and net debt is just 25 per cent of GDP, the second-lowest of the world’s ten biggest economies.

Jokowi’s infrastructure program has been widely popular. On Transparency International’s measure, corruption is no longer as bad as it was, partly because the online revolution promotes payment systems that cut out the middleman. And his award-winning finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, has spearheaded a program of serious deregulation to cut red tape and make Indonesia more business-friendly.

But what is happening in the United States is creating waves through the developing world. The ANU’s Ross McLeod pointed out that rising US interest rates mean Indonesia too has to raise its interest rates to maintain the capital inflow that finances much of its investment. The Fed’s rate rises have led the dollar to appreciate in value, and the rupiah to depreciate. And with a big trade in exporting components for Chinese factories to assemble into finished goods, Indonesia too is vulnerable to Donald Trump’s expanding tariff hikes on Chinese exports.

Australia faces similar issues. But we have political bipartisanship in these areas, so they can be handled sensibly. The Reserve Bank has not only allowed the Australian dollar to decline, it has welcomed it, because that makes Australian exports more competitive. (We have also been lucky so far with mineral prices rising to offset the dollar’s fall.)

That is not the case in Indonesia. Prabowo keeps attacking Jokowi in what we treat as no-go areas, and policy-making is suffering as a result. The rupiah this year has fallen by 8 to 9 per cent against the US dollar, in line with the Australian dollar’s falls. But Prabowo argues that this is making Indonesians poorer, and the government should intervene to maintain its value.

And intervene it has. McLeod pointed out with regret that, to prop up the rupiah and keep capital inflow coming, Bank Indonesia has sold off US$4 billion of its reserves, and lifted its interest rates by 1.25 per cent — equivalent to five Australian rate rises. To try to hold down the increase in the current account deficit, the government has hiked tariffs on imported vacuum cleaners and other goods.

And as Prabowo is also banging on about rising oil prices, Jokowi has increased the petrol subsidies he had earlier cut, and slowed infrastructure spending to pay for them. All of this will slow Indonesia’s growth, McLeod argued, compared to an Australian-style policy response that lets nature take its course and relies on the automatic stabilisers to keep the economy upright.


Indonesia’s previous president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, had two terms in office. The first saw an impressive five years of reform combined with reassurance; he was comfortably re-elected. In his second term, however, SBY dropped the oars and stopped rowing; he no longer wanted to make hard decisions, he just wanted to stay popular. Indonesia drifted off course. Islamist groups and economic nationalists became more assertive, infrastructure was left to become even more backward, and the crisis of Indonesia’s low education standards grew even worse.

For all his faults, Jokowi’s first term has been a successful one. Like SBY, he will probably be re-elected, and comfortably. But what will his second term deliver to Indonesians? Will it continue the progress of his first term, or see it regress into a less tolerant, more backward country? Will the president keep rowing — or will he too drop the oars, avoid the hard decisions, and gradually let his country drift off course? •

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