Are protests proving a threat to Indonesia’s ‘model’ democracy?
One year ago, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known by his nickname, Ahok, was riding high. The governor of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia and its largest city, was widely popular for policies like a crackdown on graft and for his no-nonsense style. In early 2017 Ahok had an approval rating of roughly 70 per cent. He was the overwhelming favourite to win the 2017 gubernatorial election, and was often mentioned as a future presidential candidate.
In the past year, few have fallen so far as Ahok. In April, he was trounced in the gubernatorial election, losing by more than 15 per cent to Anies Baswedan, a former cabinet minister who could not match Ahok’s charisma. Baswedan had trailed Ahok until Islamist groups, some with ties to the army, began holding anti-Ahok rallies in Jakarta, in late 2016. These turned into a political phenomenon. They wound up attracting tens of thousands of people, smearing Ahok with massively untrue charges and fearmongering.
It got worse for the former governor. In early May, an Indonesian court sentenced Ahok to two years in jail for blasphemy. The court held that Ahok, a Chinese Christian in a country that is overwhelmingly ethnic Malay and Muslim, had insulted Islam during a speech last year where he warned potential voters not to let other candidates fool them by citing a Quran verse to claim that a non-Muslim could not be a leader of Muslims.
Ahok’s downfall was swift, but it exposed a growing challenge in Indonesia, once considered a model of democratic transition and pluralism. Over the past decade, even as Indonesia held multiple free elections and crushed the Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah terrorist network, the country’s famous moderation was slowly crumbling.
Now, violent militant networks are rebuilding, while non-violent Islamist movements have become increasingly influential. After taking down Ahok, the militants and the army could swing the presidential election in 2019, potentially undermining Indonesia’s entire democratic progress.
In the early 2000s, only a few years after the fall of long-time dictator Suharto and the Asian financial crisis, Indonesia was beset by economic and political instability, with militant groups launching multiple major terror attacks.
But by the end of the 2000s, Indonesia had achieved a striking shift. Under former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and then current president Joko Widodo, elected in 2014, the country’s police and intelligence units identified Jemaah Islamiah cells and destroyed them. Yudhoyono and other leaders touted the country’s freedoms and political decentralisation. “Indonesia can be a model where Islam and democracy exist hand in hand,” Yudhoyono told CNN.
Ahok won a job as deputy governor of the capital city, a seeming sign of the country’s growing tolerance. In the 2014 presidential elections, Widodo defeated former lieutenant general Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo, the former son-in-law of Suharto, was a man who seemed the embodiment of the old, army-dominated country.
But in the past few years, the ground began to shift. It was not, however, until the anti-Ahok rallies of late 2016 and early 2017 that the scope of the challenge became fully clear.
Meanwhile, although openly religious parties had not done well in national elections, decentralisation actually may have helped them. On the local level, for instance, militant groups have passed laws that allowed more usage of Sharia law in places like Aceh. These victories have left Islamist groups emboldened and ready to take on bigger, national-level fights. Between the mid-2000s and the mid-2010s, the number of people prosecuted under blasphemy laws in Indonesia skyrocketed, in part due to pressure on prosecutors and judges from militant groups. Unfortunately, both Yudhoyono and Widodo did little to stop these campaigns.
The case of Ahok’s election provided the perfect storm for militants – some with potential links to retrograde army officers and oligarchs – to finally dominate the national stage.
Ahok’s statement, which he later apologised for, spread quickly on social media and through networks of the Islamic Defenders Front, a leading militant group that historically has had close ties to some officers in the armed forces, and through other militant organisations.
The enormous rallies in Jakarta turned ugly. Many featured false claims, including that Ahok was a Chinese spy and that Chinese were (falsely) demographically swamping the country. The rallies dominated the national media coverage. Militant networks that had previously been viewed as fringe groups played central roles in organising the rallies, and seemed to have limitless resources.
The fact that the Islamic Defenders Front and other rally leaders seemed flush with cash made many Indonesian observers wonder who in the military and business community – wary of Ahok’s crackdown on graft, and worried about efforts by allies Ahok and Jokowi to bolster transparency regarding the armed forces – might be backing the protests.
The army had never really exited politics, but now it could be even more influential. During Suharto’s time, the armed forces and the dictator ruled together. Although the army stepped back from public dominance after Suharto’s regime collapse, the armed forces did not fully submit to civilian rule. And while Prabowo lost the 2014 election, he never left the political stage and still enjoys strong support in some ranks of the army.
The rallies clearly had an effect on the election, sending an ominous signal for the future – mainstream politicians have, for the first time, learnt that they can use religious grievances and hard-line rallies as wedges to win support. Polls taken after the election suggested many voters were willing to vote primarily on religious and ethnic lines.
Jokowi’s government is now desperately trying to fight back. In mid-May, the security minister, Wiranto, announced that Indonesia was banning one of the militant groups – probably so that the group could not launch anti-Jokowi demonstrations in the run-up to 2019. In the next year, Jokowi likely will position himself as a staunch champion of religious voters – a strategy easier for Jokowi, a Muslim, to use than Ahok could have.
Yet the decision to ban the militant groups may not succeed, and Indonesia’s democracy appears increasingly threatened. Indonesian judges may force the government to backtrack on its militants ban. And Jokowi wooing of hardliners could actually wind up further empowering militant groups, since it could make the president look weak.
Meanwhile, leaders of the anti-Ahok rallies are clearly gearing up for a similar effort to smear Jokowi and potentially push Prabowo forward in 2019.
If this effort succeeds, it could be the death blow for Indonesia’s nascent democratic experiment. In the 2014 campaign, Prabowo openly railed against liberal democracy’s institutions and norms. He could win the 2019 vote and then turn into an elected autocrat, along the lines of the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. If Prabowo wins with the support of major militant groups, he could then use them as a kind of shock troops, to intimidate opponents – while militants destroy Indonesia’s moderate Islamic traditions. Indonesia, then, would still be a model – but a model of how democracy dies.
Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for South East Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations
Updated: June 1, 2017 04:00 AM