Indonesia’s Fragile Festival of Democracy

Mas Agung Wilis/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Joko Widodo, the incumbent president, casting his general election ballot, Jakarta, Indonesia, March, 17, 2019

Jakarta, Indonesia—Democracy in Indonesia always seems to come at a high price. At least a hundred people died while keeping the polls open on Election Day last week, from causes such as heat-stroke and exhaustion. The Indonesian islands straddle the Equator and most of them are hot, at least eighty degrees, every day of the year. They are home to 264 million people and are the stage for world’s largest single-day election, which is deeply impressive in its logistics. Seven million citizens volunteered to keep the polls running last Wednesday across more than 800,000 polling stations. Ballots were distributed to the periphery via planes, canoes, and elephants. The voting booth volunteers who died have been dubbed locally as “martyrs of democracy.”

Elections in Indonesia are billed as Pesta Demokrasi, or Democracy Festival. Election Day is a national holiday and voter turnout is regularly above 70 percent. It seemed fitting that in this election’s organizational tour de force, the politician who most exemplifies technocratic competence and moderate rhetoric came out on top once again.  

Yet this was far from a foregone conclusion, and there were opposition strongholds nationwide. I spent half the day in Menteng Dalam, a conservative-leaning neighborhood in the southern part of the capital city, Jakarta. A polling station had been set up under a tent in the front yard of a constituent, Wawan Hermawan, a boat mechanic. Haikal, a seventeen-year-old first-time voter, also a volunteer, proudly showed me his ink-stained finger, indicating that he’d voted. This was the first election in which kids like him, born since the beginning of the modern democratic era in 1998 and taking advantage of the minimum voting age of seventeen, could take part. 

The polls had opened at 8:00 AM, and by 2:00 PM a volunteer was reading out the votes on a microphone, using the words “one” or “two” to denote each of the two rival candidates for president, while another volunteer unfurled the large paper ballots for everyone to see, and a third person tallied them on a poster board. “One” was the incumbent Joko Widodo, widely known by the contraction “Jokowi,” who was elected in 2014 as the country’s first president without a military background. “Two” was the same opponent Jokowi had faced in the last election, Prabowo Subianto, a former general and leader of Gerindra, the Great Indonesia Movement Party, who was running on a more populist and conservative platform.

A further volunteer made coffee in plastic cups for the post-lunch slump; someone else handed out palm-sugar cakes, and another entertained a constituent’s small child. Most of the voters in this district supported Prabowo’s opposition ticket and a clutch of older women cackled and clapped whenever a vote for him was counted. When, less frequently, a vote was clocked for the incumbent, they exhaled dramatically: Astaghfirullah! God forgive us.

In the afternoon, a young man named Hadi Asan showed up at the polling station in Tebet in a red and black militia-style uniform that had “Brigade 411” emblazoned on the jacket. The number 411 refers to November 4, the date of a major Islamist mass rally back in 2016. Hadi is an alumnus of that rally and others that followed, and his insignia indicated the resilience of the activist networks they spawned. His uniform also comprised a black peci (cap) and a broad black leather waist belt.

“We’re just doing our responsibility, checking to make sure the polling stations are in order,” he said. He had voted for Prabowo earlier in the day. Although faintly menacing in appearance, having worn his full uniform despite the dry heat, he seemed personable enough. Still, his very presence reflected the Prabowo campaign’s fearmongering about voter fraud and its promises to contest potential election irregularities.

The mood at the station cooled around 3:00 PM when early counts available online suggested another Jokowi win. The result is still unofficial, based on unverified counts tallied from individual polling stations; an audited report is expected from the national General Elections Commission over the next month. But by day’s end, preliminary counts indicated that the sitting president had indeed won—and handily, by about 10 percent.


Jokowi is often called halus, a Javanese term that means “smooth” or “unruffled.” He came up in Surakarta, a small city in Central Java, as a furniture salesman, then became Surakarta’s mayor, leapfrogged into the governorship of Jakarta, and coasted from there into the presidency. He is physically slight, which is seemingly incongruous with the huge crowds he tends to attract, but he has a gift for frank, informal communication.

During this election, he campaigned for a straightforward mandate to continue the program of his first term, under the tagline “Indonesia Maju,” or “Advanced Indonesia.” In practice, this has meant making priorities of economic growth and infrastructure building, as well as improvements in public services like education and healthcare. Jokowi has courted Chinese investment and worked to renationalize natural resources like the vast Grasberg gold mine in Papua province. Moderate and market-oriented, his approach appeals to a broad spectrum of Indonesians by sharing the benefits of prosperity while girding a nascent social safety net. But, say his critics, such pragmatic, conflict-averse incrementalism has come at the expense of a conspicuous silence on human rights and civil liberties.


Incumbents necessarily run on the promise of continuity, but Jokowi’s nominee for the next vice president was something of a wild card. Although Ma’ruf Amin has had several stints in politics, his most recent job was to lead the Indonesian Ulama Council, the national body of Islamic scholars, making him the foremost Muslim cleric in Indonesia. A religious conservative who has issued fatwas against LGBTQ people and minority Muslim sects like Shia and Ahmadiyya, as well as advocated for female circumcision (otherwise known as female genital mutilation), Ma’ruf was a prophylactic choice for Jokowi. Though Jokowi is a practicing Muslim, his religiosity is not showy, and his observance was questioned in the run-up to the 2014 election. By picking Ma’ruf, Jokowi hoped to ward off another round of faith-based attacks in this cycle.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and about 90 percent of its citizens are Sunni Muslims. It is not a secular state but has defined itself since its postcolonial independence in 1945 as pluralist and multi-faith. It was ruled for three decades, from 1965 to 1998, by the military strongman Suharto, whose dictatorship still casts a long, dark shadow on its contemporary politics. In the post-Suharto era, Indonesian democracy has developed hand in hand with a religious revival, particularly among Muslim groups that were suppressed during the dictatorship.

Although it is not new for politicians to bolster their credibility and standing by parading their Islamic faith and values, religion was unusually foregrounded in this last race. This was because the general elections took place in the wake of a vitriolic local contest in Jakarta in 2017, when Islamist zealots mobilized mass protests to agitate for the trial and prosecution of a popular ethnic-Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta for allegedly blaspheming against Islam—attacks that led to his defeat at the polls. The eruption of a populist, hardline Islam in 2016 and 2017 seemed to catch Jokowi by surprise, and he quickly caved to the demand to put the governor—his own former deputy and close ally—on trial. In an earlier show of conciliation, he even prayed alongside his Islamist critics during their second mass rally in December 2016. (Ma’ruf and the Ulama Council actively supported these rallies, too.)

Religion was thus an important component for both Jokowi’s campaign and that of his rival, Prabowo. While Jokowi adopted a defensive strategy by coopting a prominent conservative from the religious establishment on his ticket, Prabowo aligned his campaign with grassroots hardline groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). The FPI began in the late 1990s as thuggish vigilantes, conducting morality raids on bars and brothels, but rapidly went mainstream in 2016 through its leading part in the Jakarta election rallies. In contrast to the street politics of the FPI, the Indonesian Ulama Council that produced Ma’ruf was a quasi-governmental body originally created by Suharto in 1975 with the aim of domesticating the clerical establishment.  

“I can see why many progressives were disappointed by Jokowi’s pick of Ma’ruf, given his human rights record,” said Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, a scholar of Islam who used to run the Liberal Islam Network. “In my opinion, it has been the most polarizing election ever—like the Jakarta election but national.” On the other hand, he said, it is not inherently negative that religion continues to play a large part in the country’s politics. “Democracy will develop in a different way here than it did in the West,” he said, noting also that many conservative movements, such as Salafism and the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party, have moderated over time as they’ve taken their places under the figurative big tent of Indonesian Islam.

Besides allying with Ma’ruf, Jokowi adopted a multipronged approach to appealing to religious voters. Leading FPI figures have, for example, found positions on his campaign team and in his administration. And Jokowi also lobbied hard in support of a mass-membership Sunni organization known as Nahdlatul Ulama. The effect was that both candidates paraded plausible Muslim credentials, which was Jokowi’s intent. 

Eko Siswono Toyudho/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Supporters of the defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto attending a “victory” rally, Jakarta, Indonesia, April 19, 2019

“I actually think Prabowo overplayed his hands with Islamists,” Yohanes Sulaiman, a security scholar at General Achmad Yani University in Jakarta, told me. “He had a shot if he’d campaigned on the economy. There’s no way that committed Islamists would vote for Jokowi anyway, but the moderates could have been swayed.”


Despite Jokowi’s vaunted program of economic development, growth has been sluggish. Indonesia’s GDP grew at an annualized rate of only about 5 percent in recent quarters, below the 7 percent target that Jokowi pledged in 2014. Jokowi made some limited headway with policies like land redistribution, but the country’s wealth inequality remains entrenched, the sixth-highest in the world. Assuming a populist mantle, Prabowo did speak more loudly about this, pinning the blame on capital flight and the supposedly disproportionate wealth of ethnic-Chinese businesspeople in Indonesia. But these were the same talking points he’d used in 2014 and his economic message attracted few new voters this year.

Although Jokowi was able to beat his opponent once again on a largely bread-and-butter agenda, he did little to placate disappointed progressive supporters who had hoped for advances in human rights during his debut campaign of 2014. There has still been no truth and reconciliation process, for example, to address the mass killings of suspected Communists and leftists in 1965, which ushered in the Suharto dictatorship; nor has there been any accountability over the estimated 10,000 Chinese Indonesians and student protesters killed during riots that led to Suharto’s ouster in 1998.

Two decades after Suharto’s departure, none of this is ever far beneath the surface of Indonesian politics. Indeed, Jokowi’s opponent, Prabowo, spent over twenty years in the army and was involved both in Indonesia’s violent occupation of Timor-Leste and in crushing the 1998 student protests. Jokowi’s inner circle remains stocked with ex-generals like the former head of the armed forces, Wiranto, who was accused by the UN of “crimes against humanity” for his role in Timor-Leste. But against the backdrop of the sectarian religious intolerance that mushroomed during his first term and peaked during the Jakarta election, Jokowi’s laissez-faire attitude has begun to look negligent. Besides his passivity over the history of human rights abuses, he has seemed sanguine about an increasingly absurd series of blasphemy convictions, as well as the explosion of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and discriminatory policing since 2016.

“Jokowi’s re-election has no significant impact on human rights so far,” said Maria Sumarsih, a human rights activist whose son was killed in the 1998 student riots. “My demand for his second term is the same as always: to prosecute past violations under the 2000 law concerning human rights.” She has held a weekly protest about the official inaction on human rights violations in front of the Presidential Palace for the last dozen years. The crowd was larger than usual last week, she said, with disillusioned voters who abstained from supporting either presidential candidate in this election.


All the same, democratic participation last week was high. Not only was there an 80 percent voter turnout, but nearly a quarter of a million people—almost one percent of all Indonesians—also ran for office. Although the presidential contest dominated the news cycle, there were many interesting down-ballot races. I met one among this new wave of first-time politicians, Sri Vira Chandra, in the Kalibata area of South Jakarta on Election Day morning. She is one of tens of thousands of citizens who have been empowered by Indonesia’s two-decade expansion of democracy.

Known as Ummi (“Mother”) to her followers, Sri Vira is a Muslim preacher and conservative activist; she was contesting a seat on the Jakarta City Council as a member of the Prosperous Justice Party, an Islamist party modeled on the Muslim Brotherhood. In the living room of Sri Vira’s house, we talked over a plate of cut dragon fruit.

“As a Muslimah woman, I can’t separate the problems of women from problems of the family,” Sri Vira told me, her finger inked, like young Haikal’s, to indicate that she’d just voted. “Women are more safe in a family,” she said. She also warned of the “dangers of Westernization and freedom,” saying, “We have our own culture in Indonesia: it is religious, and Eastern.”

Sri Vira’s conception of family values includes actively campaigning to criminalize homosexuality, which has been painted by its opponents as a foreign imposition. Her politics do not fit into easy categories: she is Islamist but also nationalist, a family-focused activist but not a feminist. She ran for office partly because she didn’t see enough women like her represented; at the same time, she is skeptical of the quota system whereby all political parties must have at least 30 percent female candidates. “According to me, it depends on the women,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to find women [candidates] who are credible, they may not have the background or experience.”

Her party, which was founded only in 2002, picked up nearly 9 percent of the national legislature votes this year, up from about 7 percent in 2014. That makes the PKS the most successful Islamist party in Indonesia, but what’s also significant is how far it has softened its views in its seventeen years of existence. What was once the party’s main goal of implementing Sharia nationwide has been sidelined; instead, the PKS has explicitly embraced pluralism to maintain a broader appeal to voters.

The day after the election, I met Jalaluddin Rakhmat, Indonesia’s only openly Shia legislator, at his house in Bandung, a three-hour drive east of Jakarta. About 99 percent of Indonesian Muslims are Sunni and anti-Shia sentiment has been on the rise since the 1990s. Jalaluddin was not yet sure if he had won re-election to the House of Representatives, though early returns seemed to suggest he had.

“The best we can say is, if Jokowi wins—and it seems as though he did—at least things are not getting any worse,” he said. “If Prabowo had won, we would have a kind of monster. I don’t think the majority of Indonesians are personally intolerant… but religious intolerance belongs to a minority and is defended by the majority.”

Jalaluddin knows only too well the perils of majoritarian religious politics for a minority sect in a pious country. Sitting barefoot on a sofa, he recounted disturbing incidents that were fresh in his memory—like the deadly anti-Shia riots on Madura Island in 2012 and a national campaign to declare the Shia as a deviant sect that began shortly after he became a legislator in 2014.

Still, at its best, the ability of Indonesian democracy to absorb faith-based politics seems emblematic of an era in which many developing countries have moved beyond the default secular-democratic model of the immediate postcolonial period. That democracy, however, has had to accommodate not just great numbers and marked diversity, but also the vagaries of its sometimes wayward politicians. This can be a challenge. Last week, for instance, Prabowo spent days after the election claiming victory, even after his running-mate bowed out from public appearances, citing an attack of “hiccups.” To their credit, Indonesians took this, too, in stride: they shrugged, made jokes online, and moved on. Indonesia Maju means “Advanced Indonesia,” but it can also mean that Indonesia advances or progresses—that it keeps on moving on.

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