On April 17, 2019, Indonesians will head to the polls to partake in another much-anticipated general election. It will be the country’s fifth consecutive election since undergoing a transition to democracy in 1998 that was seen by many as a significant development not just for Indonesia itself, but for Southeast Asia and the wider Muslim world more generally.
At first glance, this year’s presidential election might appear to be just a rematch between the two candidates who faced off against each other in 2014: incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his challenger Prabowo Subianto. As many analysts have suggested, a number of developments that occurred during Jokowi’s first term will play out in the polls. The arrest and jailing of the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (commonly known as Ahok), on blasphemy charges in 2017 is one such high-profile development that many see as affecting the upcoming election. Over the course of Ahok saga, Prabowo embraced Islamists and in turn Jokowi reacted by rolling back protections for civil liberties in order to suppress Prabowo’s supporters.
In reality, rising anxieties about religious conservatism and intolerance in Indonesia are only one aspect of a broader range of concerns about the state of the country’s democracy. The bigger picture as Indonesia goes to the polls is the fact that years of democratic retrenchment have fueled populist anger, which has manifested in the form of growing discontent against the establishment and the elites; rising Islamic conservatism and intolerance; and economic nationalism. These trends have raised concerns about how various political, economic, and sociocultural variables could play out in the upcoming polls. And, unlike five years ago when there was much optimism regarding Indonesia’s future, these trends have driven a high level of pessimism about the course the country will take following the election, irrespective of who actually wins. Some are worried that Indonesia’s democracy could be on a path of deconsolidation and even collapse.
The Context: Indonesia’s Growing Democratic Pains and Rising Populist Discontent
Since undergoing a democratic transition in 1998, Indonesia has often been considered one of the most successful democracies in Southeast Asia, and one of only a few Muslim-majority nations to have successfully democratized. Milestones include conducting four consecutive elections (about every five years) that have been widely recognized by international observers to be free and fair; sweeping constitutional reforms completed in 2004, which redistributed power equally among the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of government; and the establishment of new institutions such as the Constitutional Court (MK) and the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) that are supposed to hold public officials and civil servants more accountable.
However, these accomplishments are gradually eroding. Observers warned about Indonesia’s democratic retrenchment as early as 2010. This democratic erosion has been driven by members of the country’s political and economic elite, many of whom started to accumulate power during Suharto’s New Order and then become even more politically influential and economically powerful during the Reformasi era. Gradually, they have managed to roll back democratic reforms and push new laws and regulations that curtail freedom of speech, expression, and organization within the country.
Among these is the Information and Electronic Transaction Law of 2008, which allows both the state and private actors to prosecute anyone who makes “false and slanderous” statements over the internet. The Civil Society Organizations (CSO) Law of 2014 is another threat to liberal democracy, as it allows the state to disband any civil society organization accused of violating Indonesia’s national ideology, known as Pancasila, or committing any actions that “endanger law and order” in Indonesia or undermine the 1945 constitution. Given the broad scope of these laws and the harsh sanctions given to individuals and organizations that are found guilty of violating them, these laws have certainly contributed to Indonesia’s democratic erosion.
Within the past decade, many of the state institutions that were created to provide checks and balances on the executive branch and the bureaucracy have also experienced decay. The Indonesian House of Representatives (DPR) has become a “den of thieves” – with approximately two dozen MPs indicted or convicted on various corruption charges between 2014 and 2018, including former Speaker of the House Setya Novanto. This reflects a larger national problem, as corruption is also endemic in the judiciary, with stories of indicted prosecutors and judges an almost daily occurrence. Even the Constitutional Court, one of the major new institutions created in the Reformasi era, is not immune from corruption, with a former chief justice and several associate justices indicted during the past decade.
The parade of elected officials, civil servants, judges, and law enforcement officials indicted for corruption over the past two decades has significantly eroded citizen confidence in most state institutions. A 2018 survey by polling firm Charta Politika found 49.3 percent of respondents expressing confidence in the DPR, 46 percent in the Supreme Court, and only 32.5 percent in political parties. This was in contrast to respondents’ confidence in the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), which at 73.5 percent makes it the most trusted state institution in the country.
The growing discontent against politicians, elites, and state institutions in Indonesia is taking place at a time of growing religiosity, particularly among Muslims who comprise approximately 87 percent of the country’s population. Islamic revivalism in Indonesia started during the 1980s and 1990s, with generous funding from the Ministry of Religious Affairs for mosque construction, the training of Islamic clerics and preachers, and subsidies for Islamic schools (pesantren and madrasah).
Beginning in the early 1980s, hardline transnational Islamist movements such as Ikhwanul Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood), Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), Tablighi Jamaat, and dozens of other such groups began active recruitment campaigns across the country, starting on university campuses, where their preaching activities were conducted in a relatively safe environment and thus were able to escape detection by Suharto’s security apparatus. After Reformasi, these hardline groups were able to proselytize freely with no restrictions from the state authorities.
In addition to the above groups, growing Islamism in Indonesia also fed the rise of new Islamic preachers (ustadz), who gained big audiences thanks to their skillful and creative use of media like television and the internet to spread their messages. Preaching a literalist yet easy to understand interpretation of religious texts, sometimes condensed into just one or two easily digestible minutes, these preachers have quickly amassed large followings. The most successful – like Hanan Attaki, Abdul Somad, Adi Hidayat, Khalid Basalamah, and Felix Siauw – have millions of followers on their social media accounts. They are especially appealing to millennial-age Muslims (those between 23 and 38 years of age), many of whom are willing to spend a lot of money and travel long distances just to catch a glimpse of these ustadz live.
In the 2000s, many observers thought these new Islamist organizations and preachers would refrain from involving themselves in politics. This has turned out not to be the case. Many conservative groups and leaders have been actively involved in regional and local politics for the past two decades, gaining even more direct influence over the direction of policy within the last decade. In order to increase their bargaining power, these preachers and organizations often become part of informal networks with aspiring politicians seeking to become local government officials or legislators.
As the scholar Michael Buehler has observed, the traditional deal works like this: Religious groups and leaders help turn out large grassroots support among their followers for the candidates and once they are in office, these officials and legislators then push for local regulations (peraturan daerah or perda) based on conservative Islamic principles such as Sharia. Within the past decade, such regulations have been increasing rapidly, from 100 in 2009 to 442 in 2016. Many contain provisions that are discriminatory toward women (requiring Muslim women to wear headscarves), non-Muslims (restricting their ability to erect new houses of worship), and Muslim minorities like Ahmadis and Shiites (legal prohibitions and restrictions on their religious freedom). Ahmadi and Shi’a Muslims are often persecuted by hardline groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which has repeatedly attacked their mosques and burned their houses, leaving tens of thousands of Indonesians as refugees within their own country.
Originally founded in 1998 with assistance from senior military officials to assist in its security operations in breakaway provinces like Papua and Maluku (while supplying extrabudgetary funds for its extortion activities against bars and nightclubs), FPI has taken on a life of its own and is now an organization with an Islamist political agenda. Its leader, Habib Rizieq Shihab, uses his large network, which includes military officers, politicians, and top-level Islamic clerics, to promote the group’s agenda and also to protect his organization from state reprisals.
Over the past decade, FPI has developed an alliance with other hardline groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and the Islamic Community Forum (FUI) to push their shared agenda, which includes banning Muslim minority sects such as Ahmadi and Shi’a Muslims, restricting the development of new non-Muslim houses of worships, and opposing non-Muslim politicians who are running for public office at the regional and local level. Their focus narrowed onto a particularly attractive political target in September 2016 when Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), at the time the governor of Jakarta, misspoke during a re-election campaign event, triggering accusations from religious leaders that he had committed blasphemy.
FPI and its allies led the charge in calling for Ahok’s removal from office because of this alleged offense. Their campaign gained traction in October 2016 after the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) issued a ruling (fatwa) declaring that Ahok had committed blasphemy. Afterward, their campaign attracted broad popular support from Indonesia’s Islamic community, including many members of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organizations, which are generally considered to hold moderate views. This coalition organized the so-called Defending Islam movement and sponsored several rallies, the largest of which was held on December 2, 2016 and brought approximately 2 million Muslims from all over Indonesia to Jakarta.
The Defending Islam movement was very effective in turning public opinion against Ahok. Although he had a 75 percent approval rating from prospective voters, he was soundly defeated by his opponent Anies Baswedan (who was endorsed by the Defending Islam organizers) by 59 percent of the vote. Muslim voters comprised 85 percent of those who voted against Ahok’s re-election bid. Soon afterwards, Ahok was found guilty of committing religious blasphemy and sentenced to two years of imprisonment.
Emboldened by their success in ousting Ahok, Rizieq and other leaders of the Defending Islam movement are now seeking to leverage their popular support in opposing President Jokowi’s re-election run. They have argued that Jokowi is not a good Muslim leader as he has not prioritized Muslim concerns and neglects the welfare of poor Indonesian Muslims.
Key Variables in the 2019 Presidential Election
Islam and Religion
Given how effective the Defending Islam movement was in taking down his close ally Ahok, Jokowi clearly considers the movement and its leaders to be a major threat to his re-election prospects. He has taken efforts both to curtail their power and shore up his own support among conservative Islamists. Even before his campaign officially began, Jokowi adopted a mix of coercive and cooptation strategies. In April 2017, his government pressed charges against Rizieq, who is currently in self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia, as well as other hardliners like Muhammad al-Khatnath, the leader of FUI.
Jokowi also used the powers granted to him by the amended Civil Society Organizations Law to ban HTI in July 2017 based on the rationale that the group was advocating for Indonesia’s inclusion in a global Islamic caliphate. The HTI ban was widely criticized since it unilaterally banned a properly registered civil society organization, and opened the possibility that the same law might be used in the future against other civil society organizations that the regime of the day does not approve of.
Due to his repressive actions against Rizieq and HTI, Jokowi’s Islamist critics accused him of conducting a campaign of “criminalizing clerics” (kriminalisasi ulama), which has helped to erode his standing among deeply pious Muslims. This is a powerful line of attack for conservative elements opposing Jokowi, and something that Prabowo Subianto has not been shy in exploiting.
At the same time, Jokowi has worked to co-opt Islamic leaders with strong ties to mainstream Islamic organizations into joining his side. The most prominent example of this was Jokowi’s decision to appoint conservative Islamic cleric, and chairman of the powerful Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate. Although Ma’ruf had been involved in issuing the fatwa against Ahok, Jokowi nevertheless added him to the ticket and pledged financial support for MUI and NU-sponsored Islamic schools.
Ma’ruf has significant credentials as both the MUI chairman and NU’s supreme leader (rais aam). In addition to being an Islamic cleric, he is a veteran politician, having served two terms as a member of Jakarta’s provincial legislature and one term as a DPR member. Jokowi is hoping that by joining with Ma’ruf, he can attract support among voters from conservative and hardline Islamist backgrounds.
However, so far significant support from these groups has not materialized. Most leaders and activists from the Defending Islam movement have instead endorsed Prabowo. They sponsored a special clerical summit (ijtima ulama) in September 2018, which unanimously recognized Prabowo as the presidential candidate “endorsed by the Muslim community.” They kept their endorsement even though Prabowo broke his promise to select a senior cleric as his vice presidential nominee, instead picking Sandiaga Uno – a billionaire who is also a long-term Gerindra Party cadre.
Islamist activists, many of whom were affiliated with the Defending Islam movement, form an integral part of Prabowo’s 2019 presidential campaign. In addition to support from Islamic parties like the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), activists from GNPF Ulama and hardline groups affiliated with the latter, such as FPI and HTI, are all backing Prabowo. Many members of nominally moderate groups, such as Muhammadiyah, also support him. These groups have helped drive a large popular movement called #2019ChangePresident (#2019GantiPresiden), which sponsored rallies throughout Indonesia in summer 2018 that enthusiastically called for Jokowi’s defeat. While the movement’s leaders denied any formal linkages with the Prabowo campaign, they come from the same Islamic parties and groups mentioned above and have received logistical support from these groups.
Jokowi became so concerned about the possible influence of the #2019ChangePresident movement that in August 2018 he ordered the police to crack down on the protest activities sponsored by these groups held in provincial capitals like Surabaya, Pekanbaru, and Pontianak. While such action was effective in minimizing the group’s influence, it was widely criticized by observers as another example of Jokowi’s authoritarian turn to restrict freedom of expression in Indonesia in order to secure his re-election.
As the presidential campaign began in August 2018, Islamist activists have tended to concentrate their efforts in provinces where Muslim voters have historically had a significant influence in local politics. These areas include West Java, Banten, West Sumatera, West Kalimantan, and South Sulawesi. Prabowo volunteers in these provinces are willing to work long hours and donate their time and resources in grassroots get-out-the-vote campaigns to support their candidate. These volunteers have energized the Prabowo campaign and could spell trouble for Jokowi, who so far has not devoted many resources to grassroots-level campaigning in the above areas, relying more on endorsements from regional elites.
These ground-level efforts by the Prabowo campaign are apparently having an impact, with some areas that went for Jokowi in 2014 now showing polling that has the two candidates running almost even. For instance, in West Kalimantan support for Prabowo was significantly higher among Malay Muslims who dominate urban and coastal areas like Pontianak. Recent surveys indicate that thanks to Prabowo’s efforts in the province, only 54 percent of prospective voters were willing to support Jokowi, a significant fall off compared to 2014 when he won 60 percent of the vote. Prabowo supporters are confident that with additional issues such as the low price of cash commodities like palm oil and rubber in West Kalimantan – which made farmers from the region worse off – they can beat Jokowi in the province this time around.
Jokowi won his first presidential election in 2014 by promising to promote development and investment in order to lift up millions of Indonesians who are still living in poverty. He is banking on his economic accomplishments, particularly infrastructure development, as the best strategy to counter the “identity politics” strategy employed by supporters of his opponent. Jokowi believes he will be able to win the hearts and minds of most Indonesians if he touts his economic accomplishments and shows how his infrastructure projects have improved the welfare of poor Indonesians.
During his first term, Jokowi pursued an ambitious program to build 26,500 kilometers (km) of new roads, including 1,000 km of new toll roads. His administration also planned to construct 33 new dams, 15 airports, 24 seaports, and 3,000 km of railways. The more significant projects include the Trans Java and Trans Sumatra highways, the Jakarta Mass Rapid Transit system, and the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Railway. So far, his administration has spent nearly $500 billion to fund these new projects, mainly raised through the issuance of government bonds sold in leading global bond markets.
However, Prabowo has criticized the financing schemes of this project and questions whether they really benefit poor Indonesians as Jokowi claimed they would. He has criticized the Jokowi administration’s decision to debt-finance these infrastructure projects, claiming that they are adding additional burden for the poor, even though Indonesia’s debt-to-GDP ratio – currently at 30 percent – is still a rate considered to be desirable by most analysts.
Prabowo and his running mate Sandiaga Uno have also frequently criticized Jokowi for failing to stop price increases for basic food staples (such as rice, meat, and vegetables) as well as petrol. They have pointed to Jokowi’s decision to import much of these staples from overseas, as Indonesia does not have sufficient domestic production capacity. While these accusations often cannot be independently verified with official statistics, if they gain enough traction with the public they may have the potential to undermine Jokowi’s popularity, especially among lower-class Indonesians who have trouble affording these staple goods.
Recently published research by SMERU Research Institute found that economic growth under Jokowi has become less pro-poor compared to his predecessor. This is indicated by lower per capita consumption among the poorest 20 percent of the population, which has grown at only 0.7 percent during Jokowi’s first term, compared to 1 percent under his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. At the same time, consumption among the richest 20 percent remains stable, growing at 1.2 percent annually.
While Indonesia has a relatively successful track record of poverty alleviation, the latest poverty rate statistics issued by the Indonesian Statistics Agency showed slightly less than 10 percent of Indonesians (roughly 26 million) are living below the official poverty line. SMERU’s research suggests, however, that approximately one-third of the country’s population (roughly 87 million people) has low enough income that they are vulnerable to falling back into poverty if an economic shock were to occur in the country.
The still significant number of Indonesians belonging to the poor and near-poor category creates another vulnerable spot for Jokowi’s electoral prospects – and a potentially voter-rich base for Prabowo to exploit. This is why Prabowo often makes economically populist statements and indulges in controversial rhetoric when criticizing Jokowi’s policies. He has claimed, for instance, that Jokowi’s economic policies have failed to lift poor rural Indonesians out of poverty, that Indonesia’s high level of national debt will lead to the country’s disintegration by 2030, and that Indonesia has the same level of poverty as African countries like Rwanda, Chad, and Ethiopia.
Certainly, many of Prabowo’s claims are either completely false or are not verifiable with empirical data. However, in a post-truth era defined by emotional appeals to one’s political base and potential supporters, his strategy is very effective in rallying his political base as well as attracting more low-middle income voters. Prabowo’s criticisms resonate with his proposal to create a so-called “people’s economy” as an antithesis to Jokowi, who he claims has embraced neoliberal economic policies that are harming poor Indonesians, especially Muslims.
In retrospect, despite Jokowi’s effort to modernize the Indonesian economy through his infrastructure projects, he remains vulnerable on certain economic issues. Indonesia’s relatively high rate of inequality and the high number of Indonesians who are in poor or near-poor conditions make the issues of high food prices and high level of foreign debt very salient among low-income Indonesians, which comprise approximately one-third of eligible voters. Prabowo’s populist rhetoric against Jokowi, combined with the use of divisive identity politics, remain a powerful tool to attack his opponent, especially during the final weeks prior to election day.
The 2019 presidential election is arguably the most important election to be held in Indonesia, two decades after the country successfully completed its democratic transition during the Reformasi period. The lack of progress in meaningful institutional reforms and the high level of corruption among elected officials and civil servants have made many Indonesians unhappy with the current political system and its politicians.
This discontent is pronounced among low-income Indonesians, who are also becoming more religiously observant thanks to the proselytization efforts of conservative and hardline clerics over the past two decades. This in turn created an opportunity for Prabowo to open an effective line of attack against Jokowi, in tandem with hardline Islamist clerics who are backing his campaign. The latter have managed to mobilize prospective voters in Muslim-dominated strongholds and in poor neighborhoods throughout Indonesia as well.
While it is unknown how this strategy will fare against an incumbent president who is well-funded and has picked up endorsements from most national and regional political elites, dismissing the Prabowo campaign as having no chance of winning is premature at this time. The strident support he receives from Islamists across Indonesia could turn the tide against Jokowi, especially in areas where the latter’s popularity is declining due to the rise of food prices or because he is perceived to be lacking in Islamic credentials.
Nevertheless, regardless of who wins in the April election, the future of Indonesia’s democracy is very bleak. If Jokowi wins re-election, there is no guarantee that he will stop weakening the rule of law and coerce his opponents by restricting their freedom of expression. If Prabowo wins, there are no guarantees he will be able to curtail his own authoritarian tendencies or those of his Islamist allies, who will try to further restrict the rights of Indonesia’s non-Muslim and Muslim minority citizens. The future of Indonesia’s young democracy is certainly at a crossroads and neither road ahead looks particularly promising.