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The Price of Stability

Margaret Scott, interviewed by Willa Glickman

Margaret Scott

Margaret Scott

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

In February Prabowo Subianto—who as a commander and, later, general in the Indonesian army during the “New Order” Suharto dictatorship had led units accused of human rights abuses in Indonesia and East Timor—was elected president of Indonesia, raising concerns about the future of democracy in the country after twenty years of stability. Prabowo is the handpicked successor of the current president, Joko Widodo, widely known as Jokowi. In a review of Marcus Mietzner’s book about Indonesian coalition politics from our April 4, 2024, issue, Margaret Scott describes a gathering of activists several days before the election: “All the singing and the chants of ‘We were duped by Jokowi’ and ‘Resist and fight’ belied the funereal mood. The anti-Jokowi resistance was too little, too late,” she writes. “Jokowi’s ability to co-opt large swaths of Indonesian society while consolidating immense power is a remarkable and complicated tale.”

A professor at New York University’s Program in International Relations and cofounder of the New York Southeast Asia Network, Scott has been following Indonesian politics closely for decades. We corresponded over e-mail this week about historical memory, efforts to move Indonesia’s capital city from Jakarta, and American media’s blind spot for the country’s politics.


Willa Glickman: Could you describe the outlines of your career as a journalist? How did you come to specialize in Indonesian politics?

Margaret Scott: In the late 1980s, thanks to the Luce Scholars Program, I began working at the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong and stayed on for many years, eventually becoming the cultural editor. In 1990, fresh from reading Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s The Buru Quartet—the series of four connected novels that he wrote on the island of Buru while he was a political prisoner of the New Order—I wrote a profile of the author. Pak Pram, as he was known, was by then living under house arrest in Jakarta. Writing the profile meant delving into Indonesia’s place in the cold war, learning about the deep divide between Communists and leftists (including Pak Pram), on one side, and the nationalists and Muslim leaders on the other, and then tracing how Indonesia exploded in 1965–1966, when more than 500,000 accused Communists were killed and Suharto took charge of a US-supported dictatorship.

That article sparked a lifelong interest in Indonesia, leading me to write about the fall of Suharto and the emergence of Indonesia’s fragile democracy over the past thirty-odd years. My writing about Indonesia has led me to teaching and helping to create the New York Southeast Asia Network, a virtual hub of scholars, journalists, policymakers, and artists devoted to bringing attention to the region. At NYU, I now coteach, with the brilliant scholar Sidney Jones, a seminar on democratic decline in Southeast Asia. Our goal is to bring Southeast Asia—and Indonesia in particular—into the urgent conversation about the struggle to sustain democratic politics around the world.

Do you have a theory as to why Indonesia is generally so overlooked in US media, despite being, as you note, the world’s third-largest democracy?

I have no grand theory. I’ll venture a few possibilities: for starters, the sheer complexity and diversity of Indonesia makes it difficult to write about. Two, Indonesia didn’t garner much US coverage even in the glory days of newspapers and TV news, and now that international coverage has shrunk, there are hardly any US correspondents based there. Perhaps lack of coverage breeds more lack of coverage. Lastly, maybe the lack of a colonial connection, or the fact that there are not famous Indonesiatowns or restaurants in US cities or trendy Indonesian pop stars on social media makes it easier to overlook the country.

Your essay portrays Jokowi consolidating power through a mixture of repressive, antidemocratic practices and skillful politicking, such as coalition-building and being extremely attentive to polls. Do you think that Jokowi might have been able to achieve the same result without outright illegality?

Jokowi’s accumulation of immense power and popularity, which he deployed to determine his successor, was not the result of outright illegality. That is the art of what he has done, and that is why it is important to understand the gradual, incremental, poll-driven manner in which he hollowed out democratic institutions and silenced critics. I wanted to be on the ground during the election so I could see how he used his popularity and the powers of the state to ensure the victory of Prabowo Subianto and Jokowi’s own son as vice president. To be sure, he used authoritarian measures, but he also relied on his most important asset—an 80 percent approval rating—to deliver a landslide victory to Prabowo. Now Indonesians will have to deal with the consequences of that victory.

You write that Mietzner’s “theme is Indonesia’s never-ending quest for political stability, and he wonders if that quest ‘is itself the source of democracy’s decay.’ Time and again, the answer is yes.” Does he argue there might have been another path forward, or that the power struggles between the country’s numerous factions were always going to be too difficult to overcome?

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In my reading of Mietzner, Indonesia captures the confounding but real balancing act between stability and democratic politics. The point of his book is that the considerable stability achieved by the Indonesian polity under Jokowi came at the price of democratic decline. The implication of Mietzner’s argument is that there could be another path forward: more contestation and more democratic substance are possible, but they would come with less stability. This balancing act preoccupies democracies everywhere. In Mietzner’s examination of Indonesia’s politics, the expansion of the power of the police and the oligarchs in the coalition was a sign of the shift from stabilizing democracy to damaging democracy. It is no accident that the work of the police and the oligarchs was paramount in the recent election.

 What will the legacy of Jokowi’s presidency be, besides his degradation of democratic norms? You mention his investment in infrastructure, and I’d be curious to hear more about his project to move the capital. 

Mietzner is now writing a book focused on Jokowi, and I’m very curious how he will define Jokowi’s legacy. Jokowi sees his grandiose project to build a new capital in East Kalimantan, called Nusantara, as central to his legacy, and necessary because Jakarta is sinking. Convinced that Jakarta is beyond repair, he is planning a coming-out party for Nusantara in August, while he is still president. (The new president will assume office in October.) Jokowi intends Nusantara to be a model high-tech green city; a model for adjusting to the climate crisis. Detractors, however, contend that its construction is furthering environmental degradation by hacking into existing forests, while others point to the lackluster investment in the city and wonder if it will ever be built. Whether Nusantara is built or not, Jokowi’s legacy will also include national democratic decline and a dashing of the hopes for the sustained expansion of human rights in postauthoritarian Indonesia.

You write that Prabowo, a former general during the dictatorship, has been able to launder his reputation—partially through TikToks portraying him as a cute grandfather. How is the Suharto regime remembered in the country today, especially among the young?

Prabowo’s victory opens a window onto how the depredations, violence, and corruption of the Suharto era unevenly influence the present. Young people have no memory of the dictatorship, and they are not taught about what happened, but many have been shaped by New Order values nonetheless. But for older Indonesians who do remember, a substantial number have embraced a nostalgia for the strongman era. Despite the brave and continuous demands by activists for a reckoning with past human rights abuses, impunity reigns and Prabowo’s presidency makes any change unlikely.

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