Two decades after it threw off an authoritarian regime, Indonesia is a rare democracy in a region dominated by autocratic rulers.

Indonesia
Election officials transport ballot boxes from polling stations in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia, 18 April 2019 (EPA-EFE/Iqbal Kusumadirezza)

By Jonathan Thatcher

After the world’s largest ever democratic election in a single day last week, Indonesia’s 20-year-old democracy is looking reassuringly predictable. There was even an indignant post-election sulk by the losing candidate, who claimed, as he did when he lost five years ago, that he had been cheated of victory — again, without clear evidence to prove his point.

On the face of it, the election doesn’t change a lot in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

Indonesia cast aside decades of authoritarian rule in the late 1990s in a violent upheaval that was accompanied by dire warnings of economic collapse and disintegration of the multi-ethnic archipelago of 17,000 islands.

Instead, the world’s fourth most populous country has become a rare democracy in a region dominated by autocratic governments, from the military dictatorship in Thailand to the absolute monarchy in neighbouring Brunei, which recently introduced death by stoning for gay sex and adultery.

Close to 80 percent of Indonesia’s more than 190 million-strong electorate — bigger than any democracy after India and the United States — turned up to vote on April 17.

More than 40 percent of the electorate is under 35, meaning they have only ever voted in their country’s relatively brief era of democracy.

Indonesia remains vulnerable to any economic downturn.

The election was an unremarkable rematch of the 2014 contest between plain-speaking President Joko Widodo and firebrand ex-general Prabowo Subianto. Early vote counts showed Jokowi (as the president is known) the winner by almost 10 points. The official result will be announced in May.

Jokowi’s coalition of political parties — parliamentary and presidential elections were held simultaneously for the first time —also look to have maintained their dominance in parliament.

But the wins are not quite as overwhelming as the former furniture businessman might have liked.

In his first five-year term, Jokowi was unable to meet a promise of rapid economic growth, despite pumping money into major infrastructure projects and trying to make it easier for investors to navigate the bureaucratic tangle of inertia, incompetence and corruption that has long hamstrung the economy.

He did succeed in cutting poverty and significantly improving access to healthcare. But swathes of the world’s fourth largest population remain vulnerable to any downturn in an economy still heavily reliant on exports of natural resources.

There is a greater sense of optimism among Jokowi’s supporters.

Another major concern has been the role of religion in a society that is roughly 90 percent Muslim — the largest number of Muslims in a single country in the world.

In Indonesia’s early years of independence after World War Two, there were attempts to create an Islamic state, but they failed. The two successive autocrats who ran the country until 1998 kept religion in check and mostly out of politics.

That has changed. Public displays of piety are now far more common, including in the way people dress and the public broadcasting of sermons during Friday prayers.

That has been accompanied by growing intolerance in some parts of the country, with hard-line Islamists increasingly trying to impose themselves on the national political agenda, notwithstanding that the country’s state ideology and constitution both support pluralism.

Courted by his challenger for their political influence, religious hardliners were seen as a big enough threat to prompt Jokowi to choose an elderly, conservative Muslim cleric as his running mate.

While the cleric had little obvious voter appeal, he did help Jokowi counter suggestions that he was himself insufficiently pious. Two years earlier, Jokowi was unable to protect one of his closest political allies — an ethnic Chinese Christian — who was eventually jailed on blasphemy charges after mass protests.

However, Jokowi now has a second term, and the powerful elites are looking less obstructive than when he first took office in 2014.

There is a greater sense of optimism among his supporters that Jokowi will now have a strong enough mandate to push back against inertia and vested interests to lift Indonesia’s economy to levels that have for so long seemed just out of reach.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. How central a role do you think religion should play in political life? Can you think of a democracy where religion plays a central role?
  2. The losing contender for Indonesia’s presidency frequently used nationalistic rhetoric to attack his opponent’s economic record. Do you think there really is a growing trend towards nationalism around the world, and, if so, what forms might it take and what sort of impact might you expect it to have on the state of the world?
  3. How much of Indonesia’s tradition of pluralism is threatened by religious hardliners? Do you think attempts to turn the country into an Islamic state might succeed?

Jonathan Thatcher is former Reuters bureau chief for Indonesia and East Timor. He was also bureau chief in Korea, the Philippines and Russia. During more than 37 years in journalism, he was also based in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and Britain, and reported from Thailand, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

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