Elections in Indonesia: long-term lessons for democratisation after regime change

Recent Indonesian electoral politics offer significant lessons for other Muslim nations which are grappling with the often contentious transition towards a "post-Islamic" democratic form of governance.

Carool Kersten
22 April 2014
An Indonesian citizen reviews a list of parliamentary candidates

Parliamentary and local elections, Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, 9 April 2014 (Flickr / Sarah Tzinieras

The preliminary results of Indonesia’s 2014 parliamentary elections show two surprising outcomes. First of all, the failure of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) to capitalize on the co-optation of Jakarta’s popular governor, Joko Widodo (also known as Jokowi), as its presidential candidate. Secondly, the recovery of Islamic parties in the world’s largest Muslim nation state after a steady erosion of voter support during the previous three elections. Fifteen years after the regime change of 1999, this year’s elections hold important mid- and long-term lessons for other Muslim countries as they transition to democracy or prepare to move into the consolidation phase.

The absence of the much anticipated ‘Jokowi effect’ on the PDI-P’s electoral performance teaches us that a proverbial political outsider in the figure of the provincial entrepreneur-turned local politician Jokowi still faces an uphill battle in establishing a viable alternative to the resilience and longevity of Indonesia’s Jakarta-based political elites.  

Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (generally shortened to SBY) may not have been a very senior officer during the New Order regime, but nevertheless his military career coincided in its entirety with the Suharto years. Moreover, his father-in-law was one of the leading generals implicated in the massacres of alleged communists in 1965-1966. His predecessors, Megawati Sukarnoputri (2001-2004) and the late Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2001), may have profiled themselves as opposition figures during the New Order, but one was the daughter of the republic’s founding father and first head of state, Sukarno (1945-1967), whereas the other was the grandson of the founder of the country’s (and the world’s) largest Muslim mass organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama, and the son of a former Minister of Religious Affairs. Three presidential administrations have come and gone before someone from outside the established political dynasties gets a real shot at the highest office in the land.

However, Jokowi was not able to generate the voter percentage that ‘kingmaker’ Megawati had anticipated. This forces the PDI-P to forge an alliance with other parties and to scout for a very strong vice-presidential candidate, making the top contender for that job the veteran political operator - Jusuf Kalla - an even hotter political commodity than he was already. A former vice-president during the first SBY government (2004-2009) and one of the most powerful figures in Golkar, the government party during the Suharto years, Kalla is an effective manager with good relations in both military and Muslim circles. Therefore, he is bound to become the lynchpin for any incoming administration, and he will sell himself dearly, because for a non-Javanese this is probably the highest attainable political position.

The PDI-P’s dependency on coalition support and the inevitable central role for individuals such as Kalla in effect ties newcomer Jokowi hand and foot to Indonesia’s perpetual elites and will curtail his ambitions for introducing a new form of politics on the national level. It is also not inconceivable that he will be out-manoeuvered altogether by his biggest rival: the presidential candidate of the Gerindra Party, Prabowo Subianto, a former special forces general and ex-son-in-law of Suharto, who is wont to again play up his Islamic credentials while canvassing support from Muslim circles.

Meanwhile, the unexpected halt to the electoral losses and even a partial rebound for parties with explicit Muslim and even Islamist signatures can be read as a reflection of growing sectarian tensions, and especially a polarisation within the Muslim bloc, against a general background of increasing religious intolerance. Although Indonesia’s religious and ethnic pluralism was also politically manipulated in the initial chaos and momentary breakdown of law and order in the immediate aftermath of President Suharto’s resignation in 1998, that situation did not translate into any substantial electoral support for Islamist parties. In fact, the steady erosion of electoral support for Muslim parties during three consecutive elections seemed to indicate that Indonesia moved straight into a ‘post-Islamist’ future, three years before Turkey would be in a similar position to begin experimenting with that alternative.

That does not mean that religion no longer matters in Indonesian politics. In fact, what Tariq Ramadan calls the ‘Islamic reference’ remains very much part of the country’s political playing field. Not only was the devolution of powers from the central government to provincial and local authorities during the early Reformasi years used to introduce elements of Islamic law in certain puritan Muslim regions, but also on the national level the political significance of the ‘Islam factor’ was driven home in dramatic fashion one year into the first SBY administration. In July 2005, the semi-governmental Council of Indonesian Muslim Scholars (MUI) issued a number of fatwas in which the concepts of secularism, pluralism, and liberalism were condemned as ‘un-Islamic’, and in which Shia Muslims and the Ahmadiyya movement were characterised as ‘deviants’.

When SBY declared that for things Islamic he would take his cue from MUI rather than from his own Minister of Religious Affairs, this stance was taken by Muslim vigilante organisations, such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), as a license to actively persecute non-Muslim and Muslim minorities groups. From the mid-2000s, Indonesia has witnessed a rise in the closure and burning down of churches, intimidation and displacement of Shi’ites, violence against moderate Muslims, and even the lynching of Ahmadis. Indecisiveness on the part of the president allowed these matters to get out of hand. SBY’s hesitation to unequivocally guarantee religious pluralism led to a failure to uphold the law by local and regional authorities as the culprits generally escaped prosecution and punishment.

The situation was further aggravated by a polarisation within the Muslim camp: the release of the controversial fatwas coincided with a puritan take-over of the modernist Muslim organisation Muhammadiyah and a parallel conservative turn in the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama under the influence of Ma’ruf Amin – who doubles as the head of MUI’s fatwa drafting committee.

In contrast to the poor electoral performance of Muslim political parties, religion remained an important social force, and religious intolerance continued to go unchecked after SBY’s re-election in 2009. In spite of his landslide victory, the president failed to use his new mandate to prop up religious pluralism. On top of growing concerns over the intervention of religious zealots in their own lifestyles, this has left politically moderate Muslims frustrated with their failure to safeguard the principle of religious toleration enshrined in Indonesia’s constitution and post-independence Doctrine of Five Principles (or Pancasila). Internationally, these developments put Indonesia’s human rights record under scrutiny. Local advocates of freedom of religion, belief, and expression were therefore embarrassed when, in 2013, the US-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation inexplicably decided to confer the statesman’s award for religious tolerance on SBY.

However, just one year later, it appears that Islamic parties have managed to buck the trend of the last three elections, while the slashing in half of support for the president’s Democrat Party (PD) evinces the hollowness of its ‘Religious Nationalism’ slogan. The consolidation of Islamic parties reflects this polarisation within the Muslim bloc between increasingly despondent political moderates and a re-emerging assertiveness among Islamists. It is to be expected that, in this summer’s presidential elections, the latter will side with Prabowo -- who used to give patronage to the Islamist Indonesian Committee for Solidarity with the Muslim World (KISDI) orchestrated by his key spin doctor, and current head of Gerindra’s think tank, the Center for Development and Policy Studies, Fadli Zon.

2014 is bound to become an electoral watershed year both in terms of possibly putting an end to the dominance of national politics by the eternal elites of the metropole and staying the course of the democratisation process. It should be closely watched by other Muslim countries for long-term scenarios after regime change.

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