Indonesia’s Fragile Competition of Democracy | by Krithika Varagur | NYR Day by day – The New York Evaluation of Books


Mas Agung Wilis/NurPhoto by way of Getty ImagesJoko Widodo, the incumbent president, casting his basic election poll, Jakarta, Indonesia, March, 17, 2019

Jakarta, Indonesia—Democracy in Indonesia at all times appears to come back at a excessive worth. At the least 100 folks died whereas conserving the polls open on Election Day final week, from causes akin to heat-stroke and exhaustion. The Indonesian islands straddle the Equator and most of them are sizzling, a minimum of eighty levels, every single day of the yr. They’re house to 264 million folks and are the stage for world’s largest single-day election, which is deeply spectacular in its logistics. Seven million residents volunteered to maintain the polls operating final Wednesday throughout greater than 800,00zero polling stations. Ballots have been distributed to the periphery by way of planes, canoes, and elephants. The voting sales space volunteers who died have been dubbed regionally as “martyrs of democracy.”

Elections in Indonesia are billed as Pesta Demokrasi, or Democracy Competition. Election Day is a nationwide vacation and voter turnout is frequently above 70 %. It appeared becoming that on this election’s organizational tour de drive, the politician who most exemplifies technocratic competence and average rhetoric got here out on high as soon as once more.  

But this was removed from a foregone conclusion, and there have been opposition strongholds nationwide. I spent half the day in Menteng Dalam, a conservative-leaning neighborhood within the southern a part of the capital metropolis, Jakarta. A polling station had been arrange underneath a tent within the entrance yard of a constituent, Wawan Hermawan, a ship mechanic. Haikal, a seventeen-year-old first-time voter, additionally a volunteer, proudly confirmed me his ink-stained finger, indicating that he’d voted. This was the primary election through which children like him, born because the starting of the trendy democratic period in 1998 and profiting from the minimal voting age of seventeen, may participate. 

The polls had opened at eight:00 AM, and by 2:00 PM a volunteer was studying out the votes on a microphone, utilizing the phrases “one” or “two” to indicate every of the 2 rival candidates for president, whereas one other volunteer unfurled the big paper ballots for everybody to see, and a 3rd individual tallied them on a poster board. “One” was the incumbent Joko Widodo, broadly recognized by the contraction “Jokowi,” who was elected in 2014 because the nation’s first president and not using a navy background. “Two” was the identical opponent Jokowi had confronted within the final election, Prabowo Subianto, a former basic and chief of Gerindra, the Nice Indonesia Motion Occasion, who was operating on a extra populist and conservative platform.

An extra volunteer made espresso in plastic cups for the post-lunch droop; another person handed out palm-sugar truffles, and one other entertained a constituent’s small baby. A lot of the voters on this district supported Prabowo’s opposition ticket and a clutch of older ladies cackled and clapped every time a vote for him was counted. When, much less regularly, a vote was clocked for the incumbent, they exhaled dramatically: Astaghfirullah! God forgive us.

Within the afternoon, a younger man named Hadi Asan confirmed up on the polling station in Tebet in a pink and black militia-style uniform that had “Brigade 411” emblazoned on the jacket. The quantity 411 refers to November four, the date of a significant Islamist mass rally again in 2016. Hadi is an alumnus of that rally and others that adopted, and his insignia indicated the resilience of the activist networks they spawned. His uniform additionally comprised a black peci (cap) and a broad black leather-based waist belt.

“We’re simply doing our duty, checking to verify the polling stations are so as,” he stated. He had voted for Prabowo earlier within the day. Though faintly menacing in look, having worn his full uniform regardless of the dry warmth, he appeared personable sufficient. Nonetheless, his very presence mirrored the Prabowo marketing campaign’s fearmongering about voter fraud and its guarantees to contest potential election irregularities.

The temper on the station cooled round three:00 PM when early counts accessible on-line instructed one other Jokowi win. The outcome remains to be unofficial, primarily based on unverified counts tallied from particular person polling stations; an audited report is predicted from the nationwide Basic Elections Fee over the subsequent month. However by day’s finish, preliminary counts indicated that the sitting president had certainly gained—and handily, by about 10 %.


Jokowi is usually known as halus, a Javanese time period meaning “easy” or “unruffled.” He got here up in Surakarta, a small metropolis in Central Java, as a furnishings salesman, then grew to become Surakarta’s mayor, leapfrogged into the governorship of Jakarta, and coasted from there into the presidency. He’s bodily slight, which is seemingly incongruous with the large crowds he tends to draw, however he has a present for frank, casual communication.

Throughout this election, he campaigned for a simple mandate to proceed this system of his first time period, underneath the tagline “Indonesia Maju,” or “Superior Indonesia.” In observe, this has meant making priorities of financial progress and infrastructure constructing, in addition to enhancements in public providers like training and healthcare. Jokowi has courted Chinese language funding and labored to renationalize pure sources just like the huge Grasberg gold mine in Papua province. Reasonable and market-oriented, his strategy appeals to a broad spectrum of Indonesians by sharing the advantages of prosperity whereas girding a nascent social security internet. However, say his critics, such pragmatic, conflict-averse incrementalism has come on the expense of a conspicuous silence on human rights and civil liberties.

Incumbents essentially run on the promise of continuity, however Jokowi’s nominee for the subsequent vice chairman was one thing of a wild card. Though Ma’ruf Amin has had a number of stints in politics, his most up-to-date job was to steer the Indonesian Ulama Council, the nationwide physique of Islamic students, making him the foremost Muslim cleric in Indonesia. A spiritual conservative who has issued fatwas towards LGBTQ folks and minority Muslim sects like Shia and Ahmadiyya, in addition to advocated for feminine circumcision (in any other case referred to as feminine genital mutilation), Ma’ruf was a prophylactic alternative for Jokowi. Although Jokowi is a working towards Muslim, his religiosity will not be showy, and his observance was questioned within the run-up to the 2014 election. By selecting Ma’ruf, Jokowi hoped to thrust back one other spherical of faith-based assaults on this cycle.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation and about 90 % of its residents are Sunni Muslims. It isn’t a secular state however has outlined itself since its postcolonial independence in 1945 as pluralist and multi-faith. It was dominated for 3 many years, from 1965 to 1998, by the navy strongman Suharto, whose dictatorship nonetheless casts an extended, darkish shadow on its modern politics. Within the post-Suharto period, Indonesian democracy has developed hand in hand with a non secular revival, notably amongst Muslim teams that have been suppressed in the course of the dictatorship.

Though it’s not new for politicians to bolster their credibility and standing by parading their Islamic religion and values, faith was unusually foregrounded on this final race. This was as a result of the final elections came about within the wake of a vitriolic native contest in Jakarta in 2017, when Islamist zealots mobilized mass protests to agitate for the trial and prosecution of a well-liked ethnic-Chinese language Christian governor of Jakarta for allegedly blaspheming towards Islam—assaults that led to his defeat on the polls. The eruption of a populist, hardline Islam in 2016 and 2017 appeared to catch Jokowi abruptly, and he rapidly caved to the demand to place the governor—his personal former deputy and shut ally—on trial. In an earlier present of conciliation, he even prayed alongside his Islamist critics throughout their second mass rally in December 2016. (Ma’ruf and the Ulama Council actively supported these rallies, too.)

Faith was thus an vital part for each Jokowi’s marketing campaign and that of his rival, Prabowo. Whereas Jokowi adopted a defensive technique by coopting a distinguished conservative from the spiritual institution on his ticket, Prabowo aligned his marketing campaign with grassroots hardline teams just like the Islamic Defenders Entrance (FPI). The FPI started within the late 1990s as thuggish vigilantes, conducting morality raids on bars and brothels, however quickly went mainstream in 2016 via its main half within the Jakarta election rallies. In distinction to the road politics of the FPI, the Indonesian Ulama Council that produced Ma’ruf was a quasi-governmental physique initially created by Suharto in 1975 with the intention of domesticating the clerical institution.  

“I can see why many progressives have been disillusioned by Jokowi’s choose of Ma’ruf, given his human rights file,” stated Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, a scholar of Islam who used to run the Liberal Islam Community. “In my view, it has been probably the most polarizing election ever—just like the Jakarta election however nationwide.” Then again, he stated, it’s not inherently unfavorable that faith continues to play a big half within the nation’s politics. “Democracy will develop otherwise right here than it did within the West,” he stated, noting additionally that many conservative actions, akin to Salafism and the Islamist Affluent Justice Occasion, have moderated over time as they’ve taken their locations underneath the figurative massive tent of Indonesian Islam.

Apart from allying with Ma’ruf, Jokowi adopted a multipronged strategy to interesting to non secular voters. Main FPI figures have, for instance, discovered positions on his marketing campaign group and in his administration. And Jokowi additionally lobbied exhausting in assist of a mass-membership Sunni group referred to as Nahdlatul Ulama. The impact was that each candidates paraded believable Muslim credentials, which was Jokowi’s intent. 

Eko Siswono Toyudho/Anadolu Company/Getty ImagesSupporters of the defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto attending a “victory” rally, Jakarta, Indonesia, April 19, 2019

“I really suppose Prabowo overplayed his fingers with Islamists,” Yohanes Sulaiman, a safety scholar at Basic Achmad Yani College in Jakarta, informed me. “He had a shot if he’d campaigned on the economic system. There’s no means that dedicated Islamists would vote for Jokowi anyway, however the moderates may have been swayed.”

Regardless of Jokowi’s vaunted program of financial growth, progress has been sluggish. Indonesia’s GDP grew at an annualized charge of solely about 5 % in latest quarters, beneath the 7 % goal that Jokowi pledged in 2014. Jokowi made some restricted headway with insurance policies like land redistribution, however the nation’s wealth inequality stays entrenched, the sixth-highest on this planet. Assuming a populist mantle, Prabowo did converse extra loudly about this, pinning the blame on capital flight and the supposedly disproportionate wealth of ethnic-Chinese language businesspeople in Indonesia. However these have been the identical speaking factors he’d utilized in 2014 and his financial message attracted few new voters this yr.

Though Jokowi was in a position to beat his opponent as soon as once more on a largely bread-and-butter agenda, he did little to placate disillusioned progressive supporters who had hoped for advances in human rights throughout his debut marketing campaign of 2014. There has nonetheless been no fact and reconciliation course of, for instance, to handle the mass killings of suspected Communists and leftists in 1965, which ushered within the Suharto dictatorship; nor has there been any accountability over the estimated 10,00zero Chinese language Indonesians and pupil protesters killed throughout riots that led to Suharto’s ouster in 1998.

Twenty years after Suharto’s departure, none of that is ever far beneath the floor of Indonesian politics. Certainly, Jokowi’s opponent, Prabowo, spent over twenty years within the military and was concerned each in Indonesia’s violent occupation of Timor-Leste and in crushing the 1998 pupil protests. Jokowi’s internal circle stays stocked with ex-generals like the previous head of the armed forces, Wiranto, who was accused by the UN of “crimes towards humanity” for his function in Timor-Leste. However towards the backdrop of the sectarian spiritual intolerance that mushroomed throughout his first time period and peaked in the course of the Jakarta election, Jokowi’s laissez-faire angle has begun to look negligent. Apart from his passivity over the historical past of human rights abuses, he has appeared sanguine about an more and more absurd collection of blasphemy convictions, in addition to the explosion of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and discriminatory policing since 2016.

“Jokowi’s re-election has no vital influence on human rights thus far,” stated Maria Sumarsih, a human rights activist whose son was killed within the 1998 pupil riots. “My demand for his second time period is similar as at all times: to prosecute previous violations underneath the 2000 legislation regarding human rights.” She has held a weekly protest concerning the official inaction on human rights violations in entrance of the Presidential Palace for the final dozen years. The group was bigger than typical final week, she stated, with disillusioned voters who abstained from supporting both presidential candidate on this election.


All the identical, democratic participation final week was excessive. Not solely was there an 80 % voter turnout, butnearly 1 / 4 of one million folks—virtually one percentof all Indonesians—additionally ran for workplace. Though the presidential contest dominated the information cycle, there have been many attention-grabbing down-ballot races. I met one amongst this new wave of first-time politicians, Sri Vira Chandra, within the Kalibata space of South Jakarta on Election Day morning. She is one among tens of hundreds of residents who’ve been empowered by Indonesia’s two-decade growth of democracy.

Often called Ummi (“Mom”) to her followers, Sri Vira is a Muslim preacher and conservative activist; she was contesting a seat on the Jakarta Metropolis Council as a member of the Affluent Justice Occasion, an Islamist get together modeled on the Muslim Brotherhood. In the lounge of Sri Vira’s home, we talked over a plate of reduce dragon fruit.

“As a Muslimah lady, I can’t separate the issues of ladies from issues of the household,” Sri Vira informed me, her finger inked, like younger Haikal’s, to point that she’d simply voted. “Girls are extra protected in a household,” she stated. She additionally warned of the “risks of Westernization and freedom,” saying, “We’ve got our personal tradition in Indonesia: it’s spiritual, and Jap.”

Sri Vira’s conception of household values consists of actively campaigning to criminalize homosexuality, which has been painted by its opponents as a overseas imposition. Her politics don’t match into simple classes: she is Islamist but in addition nationalist, a family-focused activist however not a feminist. She ran for workplace partly as a result of she didn’t see sufficient ladies like her represented; on the identical time, she is skeptical of the quota system whereby all political events will need to have a minimum of 30 % feminine candidates. “In line with me, it depends upon the ladies,” she stated. “Generally it’s exhausting to search out ladies [candidates] who’re credible, they could not have the background or expertise.”

Her get together, which was based solely in 2002, picked up practically 9 % of the nationwide legislature votes this yr, up from about 7 % in 2014. That makes the PKS probably the most profitable Islamist get together in Indonesia, however what’s additionally vital is how far it has softened its views in its seventeen years of existence. What was as soon as the get together’s predominant purpose of implementing Sharia nationwide has been sidelined; as a substitute, the PKS has explicitly embraced pluralism to take care of a broader enchantment to voters.

The day after the election, I met Jalaluddin Rakhmat, Indonesia’s solely brazenly Shia legislator, at his home in Bandung, a three-hour drive east of Jakarta. About 99 % of Indonesian Muslims are Sunni and anti-Shia sentiment has been on the rise because the 1990s. Jalaluddin was not but positive if he had gained re-election to the Home of Representatives, although early returns appeared to counsel he had.

“One of the best we will say is, if Jokowi wins—and it appears as if he did—a minimum of issues will not be getting any worse,” he stated. “If Prabowo had gained, we’d have a sort of monster. I don’t suppose nearly all of Indonesians are personally illiberal… however spiritual intolerance belongs to a minority and is defended by the bulk.”

Jalaluddin is aware of solely too properly the perils of majoritarian spiritual politics for a minority sect in a pious nation. Sitting barefoot on a settee, he recounted disturbing incidents that have been contemporary in his reminiscence—just like the lethal anti-Shia riots on Madura Island in 2012 and a nationwide marketing campaign to declare the Shia as a deviant sect that started shortly after he grew to become a legislator in 2014.

Nonetheless, at its finest, the flexibility of Indonesian democracy to soak up faith-based politics appears emblematic of an period through which many growing nations have moved past the default secular-democratic mannequin of the instant postcolonial interval. That democracy, nonetheless, has needed to accommodate not simply nice numbers and marked range, but in addition the vagaries of its generally wayward politicians. This generally is a problem. Final week, as an example, Prabowo spent days after the election claiming victory, even after his running-mate bowed out from public appearances, citing an assault of “hiccups.” To their credit score, Indonesians took this, too, in stride: they shrugged, made jokes on-line, and moved on. Indonesia Maju means “Superior Indonesia,” however it will possibly additionally imply that Indonesia advances or progresses—that it retains on transferring on.

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