For much of the past decade, observers have praised Indonesian democracy. Elections have been competitive, the country boasts a vibrant civil society, and the press enjoys far more freedom than in most Asian states. An analytical consensus thus emerged that Indonesia’s democracy was stable and relatively liberal, with no serious existential threats on the horizon.
Events since 2014 have cast doubt on that consensus. New signs of fragility have materialised that we believe put Indonesia at risk of democratic regression. That fragility has three sources: re-emergent strands of authoritarian populism from among Indonesia’s old ruling caste, the rise of a xenophobic and sectarian brand of politics, and a sustained illiberal drift in the regulation of civil liberties.
A neo-authoritarian brand of populism emerged in 2014. Prabowo Subianto, a Suharto-era military general, ran a formidable campaign against Joko Widodo (Jokowi) in the tightly fought presidential election that year. Prabowo represented a ‘classically authoritarian-populist challenge’: he suggested that Indonesia was unsuited to Western-style democracy, and blamed ‘foreign forces’ and wealthy minorities for Indonesia’s economic woes. Prabowo lost by just 6%, bringing Indonesia within a whisper of a serious authoritarian threat. That threat hasn’t disappeared. Prabowo enjoys support from his loyal base, and most observers believe he will run in the 2019 presidential elections.
There’s been an upswing in sectarianism too. A coalition of Islamist groups and conservative Islamic organisations, backed by leading politicians, mounted a powerful campaign against Jakarta’s Christian Chinese governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok). Their efforts proved successful, with Ahok losing the election decisively before being found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison. The victor, Anies Baswedan, allied himself opportunistically with the sectarian campaign, as did his patron, Prabowo Subianto.
There has been much debate about the depth of public support for such campaigns. Prabowo’s narrow loss, and the success of the anti-Ahok protests, suggest a significant constituency for an illiberal brand of politics in Indonesia. Some analysts, however, are sceptical, and warn against inferring a generalised rise of anti-democratic, especially Islamist, sentiment in the electorate. But the greatest danger lies not in the existence of a constituency for illiberalism, but in the potential coalescence of that group with a reinvigorated authoritarian-populist challenge. The 2014 presidential election and the recent Islamist mobilisations indicate that such a coalition already has significant electoral clout.
We also note an increasing propensity among political leaders to craft ethnically-charged narratives about the nature of wealth distribution. Such politicians decry the growing gap between rich and poor, and suggest that rising inequality has an ethno-religious dimension, with poor Muslim masses exploited by a small but wealthy ethnic-Chinese and Christian minority. Sinophobic discourse has a long history in Indonesia; its re-emergence should ring alarm bells, given that it has in the past often led to anti-Chinese violence.
Perhaps most concerning, however, is the slow, insidious, illiberal drift in the laws and regulations governing civil liberties in Indonesia. Laws on defamation, treason and blasphemy, for example, are ripe for political manipulation. We’ve also seen a serious deterioration in the protection of minority rights, particularly for religious minorities and Indonesia’s LGBTI community. That drift began under President Yudhoyono, prompting a change in Indonesia’s Freedom House score from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ in 2013, and has been sustained during the first half of Jokowi’s presidency.
What role has Jokowi played in Indonesia’s slow-moving democratic regression? He won office in 2014 on a largely democratic and inclusive platform, with the support of volunteers and civil society activists. Yet since coming to office, Jokowi has pursued a narrow, conservative developmentalist agenda, with little concern for democratic reform or human rights.
The president’s attempt to neutralise the perceived threat from Islamist groups is a case in point. In July, spooked by the Ahok mobilisations, Jokowi issued a regulation that enables the government to disband organisations it deems a threat to national unity or Pancasila, the state ideology. The target was Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). Indonesia already has a law to shut down groups like HTI. But Jokowi wanted to avoid legislated checks and balances, and so designed a tool that could have come straight from an autocrat’s playbook.
Jokowi is proving to be an impatient, reactive leader. He is readily unsettled by political threats and, like many in Indonesia’s political class, seems comfortable using illiberal tools to defend his political position.
There are, no doubt, many who welcome Jokowi’s heavy-handed approach to groups like HTI, which are themselves undemocratic, illiberal and xenophobic. But it’s striking that neither President Jokowi nor other political leaders framed that approach as a defence of Indonesia’s democracy or civil liberties. Instead, they justified it as a defence of Pancasila—the same tactic used by President Suharto when cracking down on opposition.
It’s tempting to see these signs of democratic regression as isolated incidents. But we need only look at countries like the Philippines and Turkey to see how once-stable democracies can deteriorate in the hands of democratically elected leaders.
Indonesia is clearly not in the midst of a full-blown democratic breakdown. There is no coherent attack on elections, opposition parties or civic space. But we must pay attention to growing signs of fragility in one of the region’s last remaining democracies.
Eve Warburton is a PhD candidate and Edward Aspinall is a professor at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.