Indonesia’s Carnival of Democracy

Leftist politics in Indonesia have languished ever since the anticommunist massacres of the 1960s. The recent general elections were no exception.

Indonesian incumbent presidential candidate Joko Widodo and his vice-presidential candidate Maruf Amin (R), wave during press conference after general election on April 17, 2019 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Ulet Ifansasti / Getty

In the lead-up to Indonesia’s recent general election, the international media focused on the eye-watering complexity of the contest: over 196 million registered voters; over 17,000 islands, spread over 3,300 miles of the equator; 250,000 candidates; 20,000 seats in play — and all carried out in less than an eight-hour day. Since the election more than four hundred polling officials have died from exhaustion during the still-incomplete counting process. With just under 80 percent of the ballots tabulated, it looks like incumbent Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) will be returning to the presidential palace.

So, after all this effort, will it be more of the same for the world’s largest Muslim majority nation? The same slow erosion of democratic reforms won before and after Major General Suharto’s fall in the late 1990s? Ever higher levels of inequality as this industrializing and urbanizing economy continues to grow apace? More religious conservatism while progressive politics languishes on the fringe?

The Results

If the leaders of the large English-speaking economies ever stopped to survey Indonesia, they might be more than a little surprised — perhaps even jealous — at the relative stability. While the US rides the roller-coaster of Trumpian politics, the UK drowns in Brexit, and Australia prepares to move on to its eighth prime minister in less than a dozen years, Jokowi is readying himself for his second five-year term. When he completes it, Indonesia will have had just two leaders in two decades.

Both of these presidents, Jokowi and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (“SBY”), have pursued neoliberal developmentalist agendas, albeit with slightly different emphases and nuances. And if economic indicators are anything to go by, they’ve been successful: consistent growth only bettered by China and India, making Indonesia the world’s sixth largest economy in terms of GDP (PPP). What’s more, despite talk after the fall of Suharo of a possible “Balkanization,” or an imminent return to military dictatorship, the country’s new parliamentary-presidential democracy has proved resilient, celebrating its twenty-first birthday this year with no sign of impending collapse.

Jokowi’s margin of victory is impressive as well — at this stage it seems likely it will be around twelve percentage points. This hasn’t stopped his opponent, the former general Prabowo Subianto (notorious for human rights abuses in the Suharto era), from disputing the result and claiming victory for himself (which might seem laughable, but has a certain political logic, both in terms of Trumpian never-concede bravado and maneuvering in advance of the post-election horse-trading for ministerial positions).

As a result of a new electoral law, the election combined ballots for all levels of government — hence the incredible number of candidates and seats up for grabs. Early results indicate some slight changes from the election five years ago — but not much. Jokowi’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), will top the charts again with just over 20 percent of the overall vote, about where it was 2014 (at this point its gain looks roughly 1 percent). The former ruling party, Golkar (“Functional Groups,” a designation reflecting the anti-party politics of the Suharto era), continues to gradually lose ground, but not as fast as some were expecting — it may well finish second again, with between 12 and 14 percent of the vote. Prabowo’s party, Gerindra (“The Greater Indonesia Movement,” a name borrowed in part from a 1930s nationalist party with strong corporatist and even fascist politics), seems to be hovering about 1.5 percentage points lower — almost exactly what it achieved in 2014. Below them is the NasDem Party (“National Democrats”), whose politics are liberal in the European sense of the word and largely operate as a vehicle for its media magnate backer, Surya Paloh, a former chairman of Golkar. The NasDems look like they will get around 9.5 percent of the overall vote, a significant improvement from 2014, when they received 6.7 percent.

Another vehicle for an elite power broker, the Democrat Party, looks like it will capture 7 to 8 percent of the vote, down a little from 2014 (when it received 10.2 percent) and a lot from its high of 20.9 percent when its chairman, SBY, was president. At the moment it seems to be a launching pad for an aspiring political dynasty, with its parliamentary faction chaired by SBY’s son, Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono (known as “Ibas”).

Around the same level are a series of Islamic parties: the Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), which has been influenced both by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Recep Tayip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey; the National Awakening Party, a traditionalist and pluralist Islamic party linked to the world’s largest Muslim organization (the Nahdlatul Ulama, NU); the National Mandate Party (PAN), a conservative Muslim party that is associated with the world’s second largest Muslim organization (Muhammadiyah) and has a strong “anticommunist” element; and the United Development Party, one of the two non-government parties allowed during the Suharto era. All of these parties received votes in the region between the cut-off to qualify for seats in the national parliament (4 percent) up to 8 percent.

While there was some movement for each of these parties, the main story reflects a long-term trend: the waning relevance of the Suharto-era creation, the PPP, which looks like it may only just pass the 4 percent needed to win parliamentary representation. This mirrors the decline of other parties of the Suharto era: Golkar, once the party of the state (regularly garnering between 60 and 75 percent in stage-managed “elections”), has been reduced to around thirteen percent, and the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) dissolved within five years of the fall of the regime.

Jokowi’s About-Face

One thing that has changed in recent years is the complete absence of progressive politics, or even the pretense of upholding basic human rights.

In 2014, Jokowi visited the family of “disappeared” left-wing poet and activist Wiji Thukul and assured them his administration would investigate and pursue the cases of those who, like him, were tortured or (most likely) murdered in the dying days of the Suharto regime. Jokowi and his team also issued statements indicating they would seek to foster public discussion and investigate the mass executions, torture, and imprisonment that underwrote Suharto’s rise to power in late 1965 — an anticommunist pogrom that saw the murder of between five hundred thousand and one million people, the imprisonment and torture of hundreds of thousands of others (including widespread and brutal sexual violence against women), as well as the decades-long (and continuing) marginalization of millions of family members tarred with the communist brush.

By the following year, however — the fiftieth anniversary of the coup that brought Suharto to power — Jokowi was visiting the “New Order” regime’s propaganda monument at Lubang Buaya, which justifies one of history’s most horrendous human rights abuses. And in the years since he has fastidiously avoided addressing the country’s historic human rights issues, consistently caving to pressure from a right wing that has attacked him with ludicrous accusations of being a communist sympathizer.

This time around Jokowi made no attempt to court progressive voters, declining to mention key human rights cases such as the orang hilang (“the disappeared ones”) or the victims of the slaughter of 1965–66. The strategy reached its apex during the campaign against Bambang Tjahaja Purnama (“Ahok”) — the Chinese-descent Christian governor of Jakarta and former deputy to Jokowi who was driven from office and jailed for “blasphemy” following a campaign championed by far-right groups like the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI). Jokowi effectively hung Ahok out to dry, opting to court right-wing politicians and political groups rather than take a principled stand.

Ahead of the election, Jokowi also chose a conservative Muslim leader, Ma’aruf Amin, as his vice president. Ma’’aruf is the chairman of the Islamic Scholars’ Council (MUI) — a powerful, staunchly conservative body created under Suharto that issues advice and fatwa that are anti-LGBTQI and anti-“liberal” — and a former leader of NU, which is “traditionalist” in perspective and more inclined towards Islam Nusantara (Indonesian-style, as opposed to Arab-style, Islam). Despite Ma’’aruf’s age and relative lack of campaigning chops, Jokowi knew he’d be an effective ally in blunting attacks from conservative Islamic circles and isolating far-right Muslim groups.

A Fringe Force

Where did all of this leave progressives?

Some progressives, especially younger liberals, held out hope for the Solidarity Party (PSI), a newly formed party with deep pockets, slick promotion, and a prominent social media presence. The party is headed by the high-profile and highly photogenic TV presenter, Grace Natalie, and it has some progressive politics in some areas (for example, its strong stance on polygamy, opposition to sectarian politics, and support for a separation between religious institutions and the state).

But their policy platform was vague, and they made no real effort to build a mass base. Aside from amorphous appeals to voters that it was the “party for millennials,” it is not clear exactly who the party’s brains trust thought might vote for the PSI. In the end, it looks like it will get less than 2 percent of the vote, not even halfway to the 4 percent threshold.

In the lead-up to the election many progressive voters started to feel like contemporary Indonesian politics was beginning to resemble the Suharto era, when parties that were almost complete creations of the regime would take part in a Pesta Demokrasi (Carnival of Democracy), with superficial noise and color replacing democratic competition and the results well-known in advance. Progressives debated whether to join golput (“The White Ones”) — that is, to boycott the election because of the lack of genuine choice. This feeling intensified after Jokowi selected Ma’ruf as his running mate and announced earlier this year that he would be installing military officers in the upper echelons of the public service. The latter development conjured up uncomfortable memories of the New Order–era politics of dwifungsi (“dual function”), where the military was directly involved in all aspects of public life.

Prominent figures like Wiji Thukul’s daughter said she would not be casting a ballot, as did leaders of the Kamisan (Thursdays) movement, which has been fighting for investigations into Suharto-era human rights violations for the past twelve years. There was furious, and often vitriolic, debate in live and virtual spaces.

The overall impact of this debate is hard to gauge. As a boycott, it clearly failed — participation rates were around 80 percent. Ultimately, it seems many people decided the election was still qualitatively different from the charades under Suharto. Here the outcome was not a foregone conclusion — there was a real possibility that an out-and-out throwback to that era, somebody with a brutal human rights rap sheet who openly borrowed from the Trump playbook (right down to the “Make Indonesia Great Again” rhetoric), could become president. Many with serious reservations about Jokowi seem to have opted for him as the lesser evil in a situation where the greater evil was pretty colossally evil.

Glimmers of Hope

Although the election largely leaves the Indonesian ship of state cruising in the same direction, avoiding a Prabowo presidency is at least a boon for progressive prospects. And while the golput campaign may not have generated an effective boycott, it definitely created space for some of the best discussions and debates of the campaign. In the process, it may have convinced at least some participants of the necessity of building independent left organizations, so that in the future there’ll be space not simply for discussion but action, and ordinary Indonesians can begin to look to their own organizing, rather than the opportunistic electoral promises of mainstream politicians.

May 1, the international day of the working class, was a reminder of those progressive possibilities. Workers’ organizations around the country celebrated and demonstrated, and in my home city of Yogyakarta Papuan, students rallied for the right of self-determination despite facing police brutality. It it these brave activists who will open the way for broader, more transformative action — whether we happen to be in an election year or not.