Photo by Getty Images.


Indonesia’s long election year started with regional and local elections in mid-2018 and culminates in its first simultaneous legislative and presidential elections on 17 April.


Most eyes will be on the presidential contest, a rematch between the incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and former general Prabowo Subianto. A major concern is the effect of religious politics on Indonesian democracy, particularly given the much-publicised mass rallies against the Christian and ethnic Chinese politician Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama 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 politics in the context of broader Indonesian democratisation.


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


Most Indonesia watchers in Australia who were enthusiastic about Jokowi’s candidacy 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 programs.


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, despite some of them declaring that they would rather abstain than vote for him again.


Ironically, Prabowo could promise more change than Jokowi, though not in a direction that would be welcomed by most who hope for a more inclusive 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.


Prabowo was so ill-prepared 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 his own 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 the 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 (PKI) as well as of Chinese descent. The purpose is, of course, to capitalise on the traditional Muslim animosity toward ‘atheistic communism’ and an ethnic minority seen to have dominated the economy at the expense of ‘indigenous’ Indonesians and direct it toward the president.


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 politics has dominated the election campaign.


Basically, Prabowo has tried to make use of his underdog position in the 2019 contest. This reliance on his underdog status has allowed him to more forcefully claim an affinity for the masses that struggle in precarious conditions amid persistent inequality despite 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 narrative among the ummah that they have been systematically marginalised from the colonial period through to the post-colonial authoritarian and democratic periods because of 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 rarely been about contests between outright reformers and outright reactionaries, given the continuing dominance of oligarchic interests. Nor have the contests been between outright secularists and outright Islamists.


The mainstreaming of religious discourse is not about a takeover 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.


This article is co-published with Pursuit and Election Watch.


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