Oligarchs, money and religion: Indonesia’s Election

By Vedi Hadiz
Director and Professor of Asian Studies at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

On 17 April, Indonesians go to the polls for the first-ever simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections.

Most eyes will be on the presidential contest, a rematch between the incumbent Joko Widodo (Jokowi) and former General, Prabowo Subianto.

This will be the culmination of a long election year, which began with regional and provincial elections in mid-2018. There have been concerns about the effects of Islamic politics on Indonesian democracy, particularly given the mass rallies against the Christian and ethnic Chinese politician Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in the eventful Jakarta gubernatorial election of 2017.

It has been two decades since Indonesia’s first post-New Order elections of 1999. As such, it is useful to understand both the Jokowi-Prabowo rematch and concerns about religious sentiment in the context of broader Indonesian democratisation.

The first contest between the two, in 2014, was frequently billed as one between ‘a new outsider-reformer’ and ‘an old insider-reactionary’ – not least among Indonesia watchers in Australia.  Such a characterisation clearly does not hold now, if it ever really did.

Most Indonesia-watchers in Australia who were enthusiastic about Jokowi’s victory in 2014 now readily admit that he has far from fulfilled the lofty expectations bestowed on him.

A common lament is his failure to uphold human rights; but it has also become clearer that he was never going to challenge the system of power that continues to be dominated by predatory oligarchic forces. These continue to thrive in Indonesia’s money politics-driven and corruption-fuelled democracy.

After all, why challenge a system that made his rise possible in the first place? One might even say that Jokowi has invigorated that system, offering hope for change while doing relatively little to address structural power and wealth inequalities, in spite of vaunted health and poverty alleviation programmes.

Foreign watchers of Indonesia were not alone in their enthusiasm; the bulk of Indonesia’s pro-democracy activists were in his camp in 2014 and probably remain so today.

Ironically, Jokowi’s challenger Prabowo could promise more change, though not in a direction that would be welcomed by most who hope for a more inclusive Indonesian democracy. More so than in the last contest, the system seems to be working against him, with many of Indonesia’s top conglomerates reportedly favouring the incumbent.

So ill-prepared was he to play the money politics game this time, in spite of his family’s considerable wealth, that he had to forego any intention of picking a conservative Muslim cleric as running mate. Such a move would have underscored his credentials as the choice of the ummah (community of believers). Instead, businessman Sandiaga Uno was chosen, more for his money than youthful looks and professional demeanour – although these are expected to appeal to younger members of the urban middle class.

It is ironic, to put it mildly, that Indonesian democracy has become too expensive for Prabowo, one-time son in law of Soeharto, the president whose family accumulated billions of dollars during three decades in power. For Prabowo, there is an incentive to push for a less unwieldy democratic system where alliances are fluid and shift easily. Thus, he has indicated a preference in the past for the elimination of direct elections for local heads of government and for the presidency itself, which many observers fear would be steps toward more authoritarianism.

It is also widely accepted that the Prabowo camp has embraced fringe hard-line Muslim groups similar to those that led the rallies that contributed to Ahok’s defeat and subsequent imprisonment for blasphemy.

Moreover, social media is inundated with content that reinforce ideas that Jokowi is, rather fantastically, a secret member of the banned Indonesian Communist Party as well as being of Chinese descent.  The purpose is of course to direct, to the president, the traditional Muslim animosity towards ‘atheistic communism’ and an ethnic minority seen to have dominated the economy at the expense of so-called ‘indigenous’ Indonesians.

Jokowi has tried to deflect such criticism by shoring up his religious credentials, most disappointingly for some of his followers, by recruiting Ma’ruf Amin, a highly conservative religious cleric, as running mate. Yet it would be an exaggeration to say religious identity has dominated the election campaign.

Basically, Prabowo has tried to make good use of his ‘underdog’ position in the 2019 contest, which allows him to more forcefully claim an affinity for the masses that struggle under conditions of social precarity amidst persisting inequalities and in spite of economic growth.

Many of the grievances against the status quo are expressed in a political language other than class, most evidently that of religion.  This is because there is a longstanding self-narrative that the ummah has been systematically marginalised from the colonial period all the way to the post-colonial authoritarian and democratic periods due to the machinations of state and business elites.

From this point of view, it is no surprise that Prabowo would play the Islamic card – even if he actually comes from a multi-religious family. Equating the advancement of the ummah with a fight against economic inequalities makes a great deal of sense for him, even if he is unlikely to entertain Islamic-based visions for Indonesia’s future.

In a nutshell, Indonesia’s long election year has been rarely about contests between outright reformers and outright reactionaries, given the continuing dominance of oligarchic interests. Nor have they been between outright secularists and outright Islamists.

The mainstreaming of religious discourse is not about a take-over of the state by the forces of Islamic politics but their co-optation within intra-oligarchic conflict. This has been facilitated by disappointment with the workings of the democratic system (which nevertheless still enjoys legitimacy) and grievances against widespread social inequalities.

Banner image: Motorists pass electoral posters in Semarang, Central Java Province on March 29, 2019. Source: Getty Images


politics; election Politics; Election

Election Watch: Past Editions