Inside Story

The wrong kind of momentum in Indonesia?

Experts gather in Canberra to analyse a thriving democracy that could take an authoritarian turn

Tim Colebatch 11 September 2019 2912 words

Premature? Indonesia president Joko Widodo takes his seat with deputy Jusuf Kalla (right) and agrarian and spatial planning minister Sofyan Djalil (left) at a press conference to discuss his plan for country’s capital to move to East Kalimantan. Achmad Ibrahim/AP Photo

Polarisation doesn’t get much sharper than this. When Indonesia held its presidential election in April, exit polls found that 97 per cent of the country’s non-Muslim voters opted for president Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi). Just 3 per cent voted for his challenger, former general Prabowo Subianto.

But seven out of eight Indonesians are Muslims. This time, the exit polls tell us, they divided almost evenly — 49 per cent for Jokowi and 51 per cent for Prabowo, a Trumpish former general who won overwhelming endorsement from Muslim conservatives, just as Trump’s support base is among Christian conservatives.

That 49–51 split hid deep divisions. The Javanese heartland in East and Central Java gave Jokowi a massive 71 per cent, after its dominant Muslim organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama (Rising of the Scholars), which promotes a pluralist “Indonesian” Islam, formed a de facto alliance with the president — a relationship cemented when Jokowi chose a veteran NU cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his vice-president.

Yet on the other side of the island, the Sundanese heartland of West Java, which more reflects the Saudi version of Islam, gave 60 per cent of its votes to Prabowo. The challenger — as implausible a role model for Islam as Trump is for Christianity — also won 57 per cent of votes on Indonesia’s second island, Sumatra. That figure rose to 86 per cent in the deeply conservative provinces of West Sumatra and Aceh.

A conference of Indonesia experts in Canberra last weekend heard that Indonesia is now more polarised — and its democracy weaker — than at any time in twenty years of democratic rule. And it’s not clear if Jokowi’s second five-year term will heal that polarisation, or see it grow even more confronting, forcing Indonesia’s leaders to redefine what kind of country it is.

The annual Indonesia Update at the Australian National University shone its spotlight on the social divisions left by the election, and by years of increasing tension between supporters of Indonesia’s traditional pluralism and those who want to impose conservative Islamic values. At the extreme, some conservatives would like to see sharia law enforced and Indonesia declared an Islamic country.

The conference also focused on what its organisers see as the “regression” of Indonesian democracy towards authoritarianism, after Islamic militants succeeded in having the former mayor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjohojo Purnama, a Chinese Christian known as Ahok, jailed on a charge of blasphemy against Islam. Speakers accused Jokowi of retaliating by using the powers of government to suppress opposition and conduct the election on a playing field sloping his way.

The past three years of social conflict have threatened hopes that Indonesia is becoming a “normal” middle-income democracy. The momentum is now with those who want it to be a less diverse, less tolerant, more authoritarian state reflecting traditional Islamic values.

If the conflict of values between Indonesia’s traditional religious pluralism and conservative Islam intensifies further in Jokowi’s second term, the tolerant, open Indonesia we know could become a very different country.

To Australians, Jokowi seems one of the most attractive leaders on the world stage: a smiling, politically skilful man of the people; an honest entrepreneur-turned-politician building the infrastructure Indonesia sorely needs. But Indonesia watchers in Australia’s universities have been concerned for some time that his government has slid towards authoritarianism in trying to suppress the rising conflict over Indonesia’s national identity.

The ANU’s Marcus Mietzner and Ed Aspinall opened the conference with a bleak overview: Mietzner declared that Indonesia’s democracy is now in its worst shape since 2000. The former army commander in East Timor, General Wiranto, has been put in charge of the government’s response to the rise of Islamic militancy, with results Mietzner summed up as “executive illiberalism.”

Rock star Ahmad Dhani, a prominent critic of the government, has been jailed for two and a half years for a series of inflammatory tweets. In all, eighty-two Prabowo supporters have been prosecuted for insulting Jokowi, although only sixteen have been convicted. The government leant on the TV channels during the election campaign to ensure that most supported Jokowi. Police and public servants were told to go out and sell the government’s achievements.

Along with the usual Indonesian custom of “envelope campaigning” — one government candidate was arrested with eight billion rupiah (about A$800,000) in envelopes intended for voters — the message went out to moderates: “They came for Ahok. Next they will come for us, unless we support Jokowi.”

Aspinall added that it was no better on the other side: Prabowo’s team told voters that Jokowi was not a true Muslim and would, if re-elected, ban prayers and legalise same-sex marriage. And it is no secret that, having forced Ahok from Jakarta’s mayoral office and into jail, the Islamic militants’ next target is Jokowi.

Conference co-convenor Eve Warburton argued that Jokowi himself used smears to try to polarise Indonesians; his supporters are now urging him to purge the civil service of Islamists. She cited surveys showing that the polarising campaign rhetoric was matched by “rising intolerance at grassroots level” towards anyone with different views.

But perhaps this needs to be seen in context. In his keynote speech, University of Michigan political scientist Allen Hicken, a pioneer of measuring the quality of democracies, emphasised that the tide of liberalisation has been receding the world over since about 2012, including in the West; Indonesia is no exception.

Hicken has to live in Trump’s United States, and specialises in the Philippines, the den of Duterte, and Thailand, the land of coups. Yes, Indonesia has lost some democratic ground, he said, but along with East Timor it remains streets ahead of the other countries in Southeast Asia — even Malaysia and Singapore — for the depth and spread of its democratic culture.

Indeed, on any reasonable measure, Indonesia is a stand-out success among the world’s newer democracies. It has seen election after election at which power has passed peacefully between elected rulers at all levels of government. The media is uncensored, political parties operate freely and the courts are independent, if at times corrupt.

Hicken argued that its recent experience reflects a global zeitgeist in which leaders and citizens are turning away from the liberal ideals of “being able to see others’ point of view, and being able to disagree without being disagreeable.”

This is exacerbated, he said, when elections lead to a winner-takes-all outcome, when candidates who might build bridges to unite the country are blocked from standing by extremists in their parties, and when governments use rule by law rather than the rule of law to punish groups opposed to them.

He did not speculate on what has made the world turn more authoritarian. In Indonesia’s case, “executive illiberalism” was clearly driven by the rise of militant Islam in the streets, and the fear of this fuelling a resurgence of the terrorist bombings of the previous decade. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country, and the most to lose if Islamic radicalism grows out of control.

Back to the election. The defining event of Jokowi’s first term was the toppling of Jakarta’s mayor, largely because Ahok was a Chinese Christian. And, in turn, Jokowi’s defensive response to this — forming a de facto alliance with the Islamic moderates of the Nahdlatul Ulama, or NU — was the decisive factor in his re-election.

NU’s Javanese heartland (East Java, Central Java and Yogyakarta) contains almost a third of Indonesia’s voters. In 2014, they gave Jokowi a healthy 59–41 victory over Prabowo, a majority of eight million votes. In the other two-thirds of Indonesia, by contrast, his margin over Prabowo was a slender 300,000 votes.

This time the rest of Indonesia, taken together, swung to the challenger: Prabowo won that two-thirds of the country by 3.6 million votes. But in the Javanese heartland, with almost fifty million voters, Jokowi won a stunning 12 per cent swing to win 71 per cent to Prabowo’s 29 per cent. This time, his majority there was more than twenty million votes. Sure, it’s his part of the country — his political career began as Mayor of Surakarta (Solo) — but what gave him such a massive swing there when West Java held firmly with Prabowo and the three other big islands — Sumatra, Sulawesi and Kalimantan (Borneo) — swung strongly towards the challenger?

The decisive factor was NU’s role. Nava Nuraniyah of Jakarta’s Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict gave the conference a fascinating account of how NU set about organising its millions of mostly moderate members and supporters to become militant campaigners defending Indonesia’s traditional pluralism.

As Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, NU largely focuses on welfare. It is best known in Australia for its former long-time leader Abdurrahman Wahid (aka Gus Dur), the courageous, almost-blind cleric who was a rare voice of opposition in the Suharto years. Gus Dur became president himself in 1999, but found day-to-day politics beyond him, and was dumped for PDIP leader Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Confronted with the rise of radical Islam on the streets, NU turned itself into the army of “militant pluralism,” Nuraniyah said. It trained its cadres to be campaigners armed with techniques and arguments, including martial arts training. And Jokowi returned the favour by choosing senior NU cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate, despite the crucial role Amin had played in 2016 in issuing a fatwa against Ahok, one of Jokowi’s allies.

On the streets, NU’s young militants confronted the radical Islamists with similar tactics: burning opponents’ flags, holding big prayer rallies and trying to recruit those on the sidelines. There was no serious violence during the campaign, but Nuraniyah warns that violent clashes between the two groups could happen in the future.

Jokowi’s five-year term will finally start in October. What role will the NU and his new vice-president play in it? So far, their hand has not been visible in the issues he has nominated as his priorities: ensuring that “no one [is] left behind,” pushing through reforms to attract more business investment — including lower company tax and investment in infrastructure and education — and building a new capital city (of which, more in a moment).

But Jokowi has yet to announce his new ministry, and he is a pragmatist. If Islam’s influence in Indonesia continues to expand, his decisions are likely to reflect it. Moderate Islam saved him at this election; he now owes it some favours. What will the NU seek?

The role of Islam in society is not the only difficult issue facing Indonesia’s leaders. It is a land with both widespread corruption and a powerful, committed anti-corruption commission, the KPK. That’s a lethal cocktail. According to the Jakarta Post, the commission is currently investigating 255 MPs, six political party leaders, 130 regional leaders, and twenty-seven heads of departments and agencies under suspicion of graft. Not surprisingly, the MPs don’t like it, and they are fighting back.

The outgoing House of Representatives has unanimously put forward a draft law which would see it appoint a council to oversee the KPK’s operations, issue or deny approval for any use of telephone surveillance, and remove its freedom to hire. Anyone who has read Elizabeth Pisani’s wonderful analysis of Indonesia by travelogue, Indonesia Etc., will understand the MPs’ point of view. After all, our constituents expect us as MPs to keep handing them cash-filled envelopes and other goodies. How can we afford to do that if we don’t take bribes?

At issue, however, is Indonesia’s ability to progress to becoming a modern, high-income economy. Even in 2007, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Indonesia at a disappointing 143rd of 180 countries on corruption, with an average mark of just twenty-three out of one hundred. But by 2018, Indonesia’s ranking had jumped to eighty-ninth, and its average mark to thirty-eight — and few would dispute that that is largely due to the work of the KPK, which has already sent powerful figures such as former Golkar party chairman and speaker of the House, Setyo Novanto, to jail for fifteen years.

Jokowi, typically, has remained silent so far. But he has told party leaders he plans to appoint a non-politician as attorney-general, and have only a minority of politicians in his ministry. His finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, is one of Indonesia’s most highly regarded economists and has spearheaded a range of reforms, including measures to tackle corruption in the bureaucracy. One can imagine what advice she will give Jokowi on the House’s draft bill.

With the conference program decided long ago, there was only cursory reference to the recent riots in Papua, whose Melanesian people resent being an outlying province of a largely Javanese country. As they see it, they are viewed by other Indonesians through a prism of condescending racism; even in Papua, government and commercial activities are dominated by outsiders, and their land remains cut off from the world. (Even under Jokowi, foreign journalists are effectively banned from Papua.)

Ed Aspinall touched on the conflict only to warn that Papuan separatists have embarked on “an unwinnable war,” given Jakarta’s military muscle and determination to retain control. Some of us remember the same phrase being used a generation ago to dismiss the East Timorese resistance.

A different slant was put by Charlotte Setijadi of the National University of Singapore. While Jokowi has visited Papua more often and invested more in its development than any previous president — including building a trans-Papua highway — she said solving Papua’s complaints “needs more than a development approach. Papua must have political reform.”

The issue that has sprung out of left field since the election is Jokowi’s snap decision to build a new national capital — and not on Java, but in the sparsely populated jungle of East Kalimantan.

He timed it well, to chime with alarm over Jakarta’s toxic air pollution, and what is now seen as the inevitable sinking of northern Jakarta under the ocean as a result of the long, reckless depletion of its groundwater resources. Greater Jakarta now has roughly thirty million people, more than all of Australia. It has to be Indonesia’s commercial capital; it doesn’t have to be the national capital.

But as the ANU’s Paul Burke argued in a searing critique, a developing country with so many infrastructure needs could do without the added cost of building a new capital. He dismissed the official cost estimate of 466 trillion rupiah (roughly A$50 billion) as an underestimate that ignored the extra operating costs imposed by having a Brasilia-like capital far from where most people live.

“Indonesia has a long list of more compelling priorities than a new capital,” Burke said. “Jakarta is not going away. It will still be Indonesia’s biggest city… Investments and policies will be needed to tackle groundwater management and air pollution, to build an outer sea dike, and implement its own (A$60 billion) regeneration project.”

A new capital will inevitably be funded partly from the resources that would otherwise be deployed in meeting infrastructure needs in the cities and regions where Indonesians are already living, he said. The opportunity cost of giving the new city priority will be significant.

If a new capital were needed, it would be far cheaper to build it on Java, where almost half of Indonesia’s people live, and road, rail and air links are concentrated. But Burke said the reality is that Jakarta is already the hub to which all of Indonesia connects, and changing that will be expensive.

It does seem a premature decision, even for an economy that has done as well as Indonesia has. In its twenty years as a democracy, gross domestic product has almost trebled, averaging growth of 5.25 per cent a year. Indonesia’s GDP per head has more than doubled — and in the past decade has grown four times as fast as Australia’s.

Indonesia is now a middle-income country in real terms (using purchasing power parity to measure the volume of output rather than its price), making it the seventh-biggest economy in the world. In this decade it has overtaken Brazil, Britain and France. Within another decade, if it can sustain its current growth rate, it will overtake Russia, Germany and Japan to become the world’s fourth-largest economy.

Its most serious economic weakness is that the gains from growth have gone disproportionately to those at the top. The ANU’s Christopher Hoy said reforms in Jokowi’s first term have gone some way towards reducing income disparities, but the richest 20 per cent of Indonesians hold 85 per cent of the country’s wealth, while the poorest 60 per cent hold just 5 per cent between them. Jokowi’s team has made some headway in reducing income disparities, but there is a long way to go.

Few Australians think of Indonesia as a success story. The Lowy Institute’s annual poll reveals that two-thirds of Australians don’t even realise that it’s a democracy. Nor have they grasped that Indonesia’s military and police have succeeded in more or less shutting down one of the world’s most lethal terrorist networks since the 2002 Bali bombing — and that, in the world’s most populous Muslim country.

Indonesia could have done a lot worse, on many fronts. As its neighbour, we should be grateful to have a thriving, democratic success story on our doorstep.

The question is whether it will remain that way. That’s one question the conference could not answer. •