No individual has benefited more from Indonesia’s democratisation than Joko Widodo, who was re-elected as president in April with an increased majority. He capitalised on Indonesia’s free and fair elections to rise from small-time provincial businessman to the presidency in 2014 via the mayoralty of his hometown, Solo, and the governorship of Jakarta. His common touch, allied to his focus on improving basic services, propelled him ahead of a cast of elite rivals with deeper pockets and better connections. His victory seemed to confirm the idea that Indonesia was a “beacon of democracy” in South East Asia and the wider muslim world.
However, Jokowi, as he is known, has been a poor guardian of substantive democracy. During his first term, human rights, the rule of law, and the protection of minorities were all weakened, as he sought compromises with corrupt politicians and intolerant religious leaders. His second term has hardly started better. He acquiesced in the face of a new law designed to curb the powers of the respected Corruption Eradication Commission, while his government has pursued anti-government protesters and intensified internet censorship under the pretext of maintaining social stability. To cap it all, in October, he appointed his twice-defeated presidential rival, Prabowo Subianto, a former general accused of human rights abuses, as his defence minister. So how can we square Jokowi’s successful use of the ballot box with the democratic decline that has taken place on his watch?
Part of the answer lies in a better understanding of Jokowi’s background and motivations. During the 2014 presidential election campaign, human rights activists gathered around him because they were attracted by his outsider credentials and his focus on helping lift up the downtrodden. They were also driven by their horror at the prospect of Prabowo being elected. Jokowi, who did not control a political party of his own, leaned heavily on the support of these activists and even made clear human rights commitments in his manifesto. However, his track record in Jakarta and Solo suggested minimal interest in human rights, or any abstract ideas for that matter.
In fact, Jokowi was, and remains, motivated by promoting economic development. And he has taken an ad hoc approach to achieving this aim. Although he has often been depicted as a “reformer”, and has himself played up this idea, he clearly values political stability over risk-taking. He has always taken a cautious approach to advocating for change, even in the economic sphere that is most important to him. It is crucial to remember that Jokowi’s formative years, from his teens to the age of 36, were spent under the autocratic rule of Suharto, who also prioritised political stability and economic growth over transparency and accountability. Since he became president, Jokowi has become increasingly frustrated that some of the checks and balances of democracy seem to get in the way of his development plans. Hence the move against the Corruption Eradication Commission, which officials complained was holding back economic growth because of its enthusiasm for pursuing graft.
This background notwithstanding, Jokowi’s government seems to have a taken a further “authoritarian turn” after the mass islamist street protests that led to the ouster and jailing in 2017 of then Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a double minority as an ethnic Chinese Christian, as well as a protégé of Jokowi. These demonstrations, which unexpectedly brought hundreds of thousands of angry protesters close to the presidential palace in central Jakarta, shook Jokowi’s confidence, because they were targeted indirectly at him and were stoked by a potent combination of his political opponents, mainstream conservative clerics and fringe hardline groups. Having lost a close political ally, and fearing the threat to Indonesia’s pluralistic character, he started to surround himself with securocrats who he thought could better defend him and the country. In his thinking, democracy was not the way to mediate the deep religious divides in Indonesia. In fact, it was allowing the cracks to widen. As he complained in a speech in 2017 at the height of the movement to oust Basuki, “our democracy has gone too far”.
There is also an important structural issue that helps explain why Indonesia’s democratic consolidation has stalled. The fall of Suharto in 1998 during the “reformasi” (reform) movement led to rapid democratisation, with the advent of vigorously contested, free and fair elections. But while the rules of the game changed significantly, the elite players mostly stayed the same, from institutions such as the military and Golkar, Suharto’s political vehicle, to individuals such as Prabowo. Indonesia is still living with this “original sin” of reformasi. As an outsider, Jokowi challenged these people for power. However, after securing the highest office, he has increasingly pursued compromise and co-optation, most evidently in his decision to appoint Prabowo, who was previously married to Suharto’s daughter, to the cabinet. Jokowi dismissed criticism of this move by arguing that Indonesian democracy is not based on oppositional politics, a foundation stone of liberal democracies, but “mutual cooperation”.
It is true that Indonesians are typically more comfortable resolving differences through consultation and consensus, rather than conflict. Jokowi embodies this approach. However, the largely unreconstructed elite that dominates Indonesian politics and business is less concerned with cultural sensibilities and more focused on maintaining its grip on power. After neutering the Corruption Eradication Commission, their next target is to abolish direct elections for local leaders, handing the power to regional parliaments instead. The president’s hand-picked home affairs minister, Tito Karnavian, is supporting the proposal, on the spurious grounds that direct elections are too expensive. Jokowi has indicated he will push back against the plan. It would be bitterly ironic if he oversaw the scrapping of the very system that allowed him to rise from humble beginnings in the first place. However, the last five years have shown that democracy should not be taken for granted in Indonesia.