Analysis & Opinions - The Straits Times

Indonesia at a Political Crossroads

| Mar. 04, 2019

Indonesia faces a political crossroads in its presidential election this April.
Incumbent President Joko Widodo offers the electorate the continued prospects of a confident, cosmopolitan nationalism founded on openness to the world as well as an assiduously cultivated religious pluralism at home.
That formula has not only delivered the economic and political goods on balance over the past few years but also stabilised the nation.
His rival former general Prabowo Subianto's nativist concept of national pride combines a degree of military muscularity with Islamic piety. For example, in criticising Indonesia's foreign debt burden, he claimed that the nation would not last more than three days in a war because of a lack of bullets. He has also sought to privilege the national role of religious leaders, notably Muslim clerics, because of their contribution to the independence struggle against the Dutch.
Clearly, Mr Prabowo stands on the political right of Mr Joko.
Either way, however, both contenders will have to work within a political tradition that embodies the stabilising agency of change.
In 1998, the Asian financial crisis felled the autocratic Suharto regime and its systematic use of crony capitalism to register (admittedly remarkable) economic achievements. Some observers thought that Indonesia would splinter after Mr Suharto, others that it would survive physically but die a long death by a thousand economic cuts. But, instead of political change destroying Indonesia, it balanced the interplay of domestic forces and provided the country with a new rationale.
Popular expectations, encouraged by the state to express themselves through the democratic process, created a new arena for the workings of the political economy. That economy came into the open. State and market actors were held accountable for their decisions.
Mr Suharto could not have even imagined such an arena. His economics, like his politics and his military origins, was gladiatorial. After him, though, it became less akin to mortal combat: One side did not have to die for the other to live.
Mr Joko inherited the post-Suharto mantle through the presidents who had succeeded the oligarchic autocrat. The praetorian intolerance of dissent mapped by the old polity fell by the national wayside as the leaders discovered that they did not own the people: The people owned them. Citizens were not dispensable: Leaders were. Dissent brought people together by obliging them to address and counter contrarian views themselves. Whatever consensus emerged in the process moved the country ahead, one argumentative step at a time.
Mr Joko's humble origins as a furniture businessman made him an iconic figure of the transition. He embodied the stability created by ordinary people every day in an era of unstoppable change. This is what has made his Indonesia so important to the rest of the world. Liberal democracy might not constitute the end of history, contrary to what the American ideologue Francis Fukuyama argued, but history does gain momentum when millions are emboldened to take charge of their destiny.
Building on the political steps taken by his predecessors, President Joko has placed Indonesia firmly on the trajectory of global democratic development. This is not a small matter given how powerful countries appear to be regressing to an era of political primitivism, one in which a powerful leader employs personal charisma or party diktat to recast a nation in his own image. Presidents Donald Trump of America, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China come to mind. International democracy needs moderate, centrist and unifying figures as leaders. Even though Indonesia is not in the league of the great powers, it is a regional power. It plays an ameliorating role in international affairs. In spite of its vast Muslim majority, Indonesia is not an Islamic state.
It has had testy relations with China over the insurrectionist role played once by pro-Chinese Indonesians, but the two countries have drawn closer since the end of the Cold War. Jakarta's democratic partnership with Washington has not precluded Indonesia from adopting a studied distance from American interventionism in the Middle East.
On the "Muslim front", there are indications that even President Joko is reaching out to the religious community to shore up his voting base. While this is troubling, it would have been astonishing if he had not heeded Muslim sentiments on the ground. No political dispensation can survive by ignoring the demographic majority.
Yet, thanks to an historical tradition of privileging spatial identity over extra-territorial religious affiliation, the Indonesian state upholds a pluralistic and essentially secular ideology, known as Pancasila, over the centrifugal attractions of global religiosity that would pull the country apart. This being so, the international community has little to fear from the rise of Indonesian Islam so long as that rise remains culturally Indonesian.
Should he win, Mr Prabowo would have to ensure the continuity of Pancasila-based Indonesia even if his turn to Islam emboldens impressionable Muslim elements. As a former general, he knows how to control crowds once their enthusiasm threatens to spill over to the corridors of constitutional power. The danger is not a possibility under President Joko because he is by nature against the political use of religion.
It is this Indonesia which is going to the polls soon. As in any other country, Indonesians are concerned chiefly with electing the leader who will do the most for them: They are not interested in what the election result means for others. However, the rest of Asean, Asia and the world have an acute interest in Indonesians electing the person who will keep the country on course in an unsteady world.


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Pereira, Derwin.“Indonesia at a Political Crossroads.” The Straits Times, March 4, 2019.

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