In late June, Indonesia held elections for district heads, mayors and governors in 171 regions. Many observers predicted the elections would exacerbate the polarisation of society — between Islamists on one hand and nationalists on the other — mirroring the dynamics of the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election.
Religious identity politics did play a role in some local election outcomes, as we discuss below. However, observers also predicted the local elections would reflect political alliances at the national level. In fact, most coalitions supporting candidates at the local level represented different political alliances and different divisions to those seen at the national level.
If anything, the regional elections demonstrated that there is no decisive ideological line differentiating most parties from the others. Political alliances are highly flexible and there appear to be no definitive political enemies.
For example, at the national level, Gerindra and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) are opposition parties, but in local contests they readily align themselves with the same parties they oppose at the national level. Interestingly, decisions to build local political alliances are often made by the members of the party’s central board, not the local branches.
Political parties are more likely to decide to remain in opposition at the national level as part of a strategy to increase their bargaining power before eventually joining the ruling coalition, rather than because of any desire to provide the checks and balances that might improve the quality of democracy. For example, in the first two years of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration, members of the opposition Red and White Coalition (KMP) (such as the National Mandate Party (PAN), the United Development Party (PPP) and Golkar) one by one joined the government coalition.
Likewise, earlier this year, Ali Muchtar Ngabalin, a member of Prabowo Subianto’s campaign team during the 2014 Presidential Election and previously a staunch opponent of Jokowi, was appointed to the Office of Presidential Staff. Another member of Prabowo’s campaign team, popular West Nusa Tenggara Governor Muhammad Zainul Majdi (also known as Tuan Guru Bajang), also defected to Jokowi’s team not long after the 2018 West Nusa Tenggara gubernatorial election. The move was widely seen as an attempt by Tuan Guru Bajang to put his name forward as a potential running mate for Jokowi in next April’s presidential election.
This situation challenges claims made by pluralists who argue that political parties can be broadly divided into “secularist” and “Islamic” groups based on their views about the role that Islam should play in public life. While these scholars suggest the secular versus Islamic division can be important for political competition, the recent regional elections suggest otherwise. Indeed, the fact that the United Development Party (PPP) and the National Mandate Party (PAN) – parties with a relatively strong Islamic orientation – readily joined Jokowi’s coalition suggests that the secular-Islamist division is not as important for political competition as some analysts claim.
By contrast, party cartelisation theory describes a situation whereby political elites use political parties as vehicles to share power, resulting in a limited degree of real competition among parties. According to this perspective, competition during elections is superficial because in the end it only reconstitutes the same cartels. In fact, the imprisonment of the incumbent candidate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) for his blasphemy case in the most divisive 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election shows that competition between political elites can be very real.
Our view is different again. We argue that the disconnect between local and national political dynamics has occurred because political parties and politicians are fluid, and are defined primarily by opportunism. Meanwhile, voters’ behaviour is unpredictable, confirming the lingering impact of the New Order’s de-politicisation policy. Soeharto’s authoritarian regime maintained its power by dissociating political parties from their social bases as part of its “floating mass” policy, and disorganising society through repression.
In the absence of strong political party identification, loyalty or ideological commitment, politicians deploy whatever means they have available to mobilise support. This has been one reason for the pervasive influence of identity politics and vote buying in the post-Soeharto era. When deciding which candidates to put forward, parties often place great emphasis on ethnic or religious background, seeing them as critical elements for electability. The many candidates claiming putra daerah (“local son”) status in the local elections is an example of this tendency.
As each region has its own distinctive cultural resource pool, the type of identity politics deployed varies greatly between regions. In the West Java gubernatorial election, for example, Ridwan Kamil selected Uu Ruzhamul Ulum as his running mate, reportedly because of Uu’s popularity among conservative Muslims. Uu is linked to an Islamic boarding school in Tasikmalaya and Ciamis that organised support for the anti-Ahok protests. While Ridwan presents as a moderate Muslim, both drew on their different cultural backgrounds to garner support from the Muslim community.
Interestingly, not long after quick counts declared Ridwan the winner, he announced he would support Jokowi in the next presidential race, again suggesting that identity politics is more of short-term campaign tool than a decisive factor in forming political alliances.
Blasphemy accusations have also been used in some regions to mobilise support from conservative Muslims. In West Kalimantan, a province that experienced serious ethnic violence around the turn of the century, supporters of Malay-identifying gubernatorial candidate Sutarmidji accused the outgoing Christian-Dayak governor, Cornelis, the father of his opponent, Karolin Margret Natasa, of blasphemy.
Sutarmidji was backed by six political parties, most of which are members of Jokowi’s coalition. Karolin was backed by Jokowi’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and the Democrat Party. Sutarmidji’s supporters uploaded to Facebook a speech in which Cornelis described the Malay and Muslim community as the “colonisers of the Dayak people”. In the end, Sutarmidji won, but both candidates attempted to mobilise ethnic and religious sentiments to win the race.
Similarly, an accusation of “hate speech” was filed by supporters of Bekasi mayoral candidate Nur Supriyanto against incumbent Mayor Rahmat Effendi. The report was filed following Rahmat’s alleged description of the “212” anti-Ahok protest as “greedy politics”. Nur’s supporters acknowledged that they aimed to mirror the tactics of the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, although this time the strategy was unsuccessful. Rahmat’s statement could also be viewed as an attempt to gain support from moderate Muslims, similar to the way that Ahok played up his minority identity. Rahmat, backed by six political parties, defeated his opponent, who was backed by Gerindra and PKS, which had formed an alliance with the Islamist vigilante organisation the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).
This kind of mobilisation of ethnic and religious sentiment was seen in other regions, confirming that, whatever the outcomes in individual polls, identity politics is an established feature of Indonesian democracy. The proliferation of Islamic bylaws in many regions since decentralisation is another indication of this tendency.
Along with vote buying as a shortcut to mobilise support in electoral contests, the use of identity politics reflects the fact that Indonesian society remains politically fragmented, prone to being mobilised by using identity politics and various forms of clientelism, and willing to exchange material benefits for political support. It also illustrates the failure of political parties to foster distinct ideologies that might attract popular support.
Consequently, political parties are becoming indistinguishable, promoting only the interests of the elites for accumulation of power and resources. Competition and coalitions among them are defined merely by the way power and resources are strategically accumulated and distributed.
And that is why identity politics played an important role in June’s local elections, and why the pattern of conflict and polarisation at the national level is never the same as at the local level.