Indonesia’s Achilles’ heel: Populist authoritarianism

Populist politicians are taking their message directly to the people. But what may appear to be rallying hope and pride is actually a serious threat to the country’s young democracy.

Indonesia’s Achilles’ heel: Populist authoritarianism AFP Photo/Anton Raharjo/NurPhoto

Indonesia’s democracy was born out of a popular rebellion against the ruling elite of President Soeharto’s New Order regime, which had lost its credibility as a protector of the people and their interests. Unfortunately, however, Indonesia’s young democracy does not appear to be doing a much better job than the previous regime. It is struggling with indecisiveness, incompetence and unprecedented exposure of corruption.

The public is largely disenchanted with political parties and joins a lament that Thomas Carothers, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, found in many new democracies. Indonesians complain that parties are corrupt, self-interested and do not stand for anything. They waste time squabbling over petty issues; they only become active before elections and are illprepared for governing if voted into power.

In contrast to public frustration with political parties and their performance in the House of Representatives, the Indonesian military remains a trusted institution. Not only in national defense, but also in several areas of socioeconomic development it is seen as better organized and more effective than the civilian leadership. In a 2013 poll by the National Survey Institute, 60 percent of respondents preferred a candidate with a military background versus a civilian leader. Given the military’s experience in ruling modern Indonesia for several decades, some observers often call for a combination of a military man and a civilian leader running for the offices of president and vice president. Indeed, a retired Army general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and his running mate, Jusuf Kalla, won the first direct presidential election, in 2004.

The following 10 years under President Yudhoyono have been labeled a decade of stability. Critics, however, argue that Indonesian democracy did not consolidate, and that Yudhoyono merely stabilized its fragility. They also hold his indecisive leadership responsible for the almost successful candidacy of an outright authoritarian populist, former Gen. Prabowo Subianto, in the 2014 presidential election.

The rise of populism

Representative democracies are particularly vulnerable to political populism. They incentivize political leaders to justify their pursuit of power by claiming to defend the interests of ordinary people against those of the elite. The other critical success factor lies in the electoral strength of political parties, but in Indonesia the parties were overpowered by the candidates’ popularity after the introduction of direct executive elections for village heads, mayors, district chiefs, governors and the president.

Local elections for the governor of Jakarta are a good example of the increased importance of a candidate’s popularity and the resulting effectiveness of political populism. During the Indonesian capital’s first direct gubernatorial election, in 2007, the joint electoral machinery of 19 political parties backing Fauzi Bowo defeated a candidate backed only by the Islamic-based Prosperous Justice Party. The success of this coalition depended mostly on the combined outreach and mobilization capacities of the parties. What was absent during the 2007 election was social media, which was still in its nascent phase and hadn’t yet taken center stage in elections. The 2007 election was decided more by the strength of the parties than by their front-running candidates.

By the time of the next Jakarta gubernatorial election, in 2012, the number of Indonesians with private Internet connections had nearly tripled, from 13 million to 36 million. Facebook alone had 40 million Indonesian customers, many of them based in Jakarta – which was also named the world’s most active Twitter city that same year. The electorate’s despair of the political elite in the capital, the people’s ability to engage in public political discourse and their accessibility through social media campaigns laid the groundwork for the populist rise of Joko Widodo, who won the governorship in 2012 and the presidency two years later. In the gubernatorial race, he campaigned as a clean outsider ready to take on the entrenched interests of Jakarta’s political elite.

The success of that campaign relied more on the image of the candidate, and less on the still necessary support and alliances of political parties. Indonesians found an ingenious way of describing this trend as “deparpolisasi” – the weakening or removal of the country’s political monopoly by large parties via independent or maverick candidates.

The 2014 presidential election revealed unprecedented levels of populism built on public distrust of the ruling elite and the fear of being at a disadvantage. Joko again portrayed himself as an outsider and man of the people who fought for the rights of lowincome earners. His populist policy suggestions included massive minimum wage hikes and the perpetuation of a nationalist-inspired food selfsufficiency policy.

Meanwhile, Joko’s opponent, Prabowo, evoked voters’ fears of being dominated by foreigners and losing their cultural identity. To the tune of populists such as Donald Trump, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, he claimed the country was in crisis and needed protection, because otherwise its wealth would be snatched away.

Populists may push for more conservative or progressive values, or for a more universal outlook versus a nationalist agenda. What unites their differing positions, as Princeton University professor Jan-Werner Müller argues, is a rejection of pluralism, because populists

monopolize the definition of what lies in the interest of the people. It becomes worse, and democracy is eventually threatened, when populists claim exclusive moral representation of the “proper” people. Based on that moral appeal, they can argue that an authoritarian state needs to exclude those not considered as part of that group.

The impact of this populism is determined by the resilience or fragility of democratic principles and institutions. Democratic principles such as the separation of powers are generally accepted in Western democracies, and their institutions are well consolidated and impersonalized. Indonesia’s democracy, however, is only about 20 years old. The institutions have not fully consolidated, and nostalgic memories of the previous authoritarian regime do not make it the only game in town.

The threat to a fragile democracy exacerbates when authoritarian forces join a coalition with other radical groups who pursue similar objectives. Recent events surrounding the 2017 gubernatorial election in Jakarta made this quite apparent.

President Joko was governor for only two years and then moved into the Presidential Palace in 2014, which emphasized the importance of elections in Jakarta in winning national power. Jakarta is a battleground for leaders who aspire to lead the nation. Not necessarily by standing as candidates, but by testing their own popularity and their electoral machinery. In January, Prabowo declared to members of his opposition Gerindra Party about gubernatorial candidates in Jakarta: “If you can make them win, God willing, you will also win Indonesia.”


Authoritarian populists and elections

Prabowo has been nominated by Gerindra to once again be its presidential candidate in 2019. The usual rhetoric of the former general’s populist authoritarianism evokes fears of foreign dominance: he blames a complicit and corrupt political elite for selling out national interests and promises tough policies in defense of the nation. According to Indonesia’s state-run Antara news agency, when addressing his party gathering, Prabowo claimed that the Indonesian people were looked down upon, and were considered stupid and easily fooled. “Gerindra is committed to the 1945 Constitution and not the one that is engineered for the interests of foreign countries,” he said.

Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, head of the Indonesian Armed Forces, apparently fancies that he has a chance in the 2019 presidential election and is pursuing a populist strategy similar to that of Prabowo. Gatot maintains that foreign powers are fighting proxy wars to “control our natural resources,” and these strategies include controlling media, which then “engineers conflicts between the military and police or between political parties, and instigates societal and cultural change.” He added: “We can already sense that proxy war is creeping in today and we should be on the alert.”

President Joko will certainly seek a second term in 2019. Late last year, and amid the campaigning for the governorship

of Jakarta, his government came under attack when rumors spread that millions of Chinese had entered Indonesia to find work. The government easily proved that these “nationalist” rumors were wrong, but they set the tone for the 2019 campaign.

Recent mass demonstrations by hard-line Islamist groups, and the ongoing blasphemy trial of Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was backed by Joko in the 2017 gubernatorial election (the runoff of which occurred after Strategic Review was published on April 1), must be seen in the same light. The Chinese community in Indonesia perceived it as a breakthrough when Basuki, a Christian of Chinese descent, became Joko’s running mate in the 2012 Jakarta election, and when he assumed the governorship in 2014.

Islamist hard-liners hate Basuki and cringe at the thought of a non-Muslim being in charge of Jakarta, which resembles the populist authoritarian rhetoric of alleged proxy war “assaults” by foreign powers against the Indonesian nation. Gatot has argued that foreign influences undermine Indonesian values and cause unwanted societal and cultural change. (This would include drug use and homosexuality, among others.) In the same vein, nonbinding fatwas by the Indonesian Ulema Council last year banned Muslims from voting for a non-Muslim and demanded that Muslim workers at shopping malls and stores not wear Christmas-related outfits. The violent, hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which organized the mass demonstrations against Basuki, unlawfully raided several shopping malls in Surabaya, the capital of East Java Province, to enforce this nonbinding decree.

The interests of populist authoritarianism and Islamic extremism appeared to be aligned when it came to opposing the candidacy of Basuki in Jakarta. They both evoked fears of being dominated by foreign interests that are detrimental to Indonesians and their faith. Both consider and declare themselves defenders of Indonesians.

An actual alliance between certain parts of the military and Islamist groups originated during the final stages of the New Order regime. According to Marcus Mietzner, a political scientist at the Australian National University, it started in the late 1980s and early 1990s when certain Army leaders sought to advance their interests by cultivating Islamic support groups against other leaders within the Army. This alliance survived the fall of the Soeharto regime and even appeared to cooperate with Islamist groups that were involved in several cases of communal violence in the early 2000s. During Yudhoyono’s 10 years in office, the FPI managed to maintain its relationship with parts of the government and security forces. Political scientists are still debating whether they were just encouraged by Yudhoyono’s indecisive response to their mass iolence, including mob murders of members of minority groups, or if they received his “tacit approval” to carry on with growing religious intolerance and Islamist violence against the Ahmadiyah, Shiites and Christians.


Populist authoritarianism in this year’s Jakarta gubernatorial election was stronger than ever seen before. Both Prabowo and Gatot used it to examine their chances in possible presidential runs in 2019, while the Islamists publicly demonstrated their ability to mobilize massive and influential crowds and push their extreme agenda. The fact that these diverse interests can align makes populist authoritarianism the Achilles’ heel of Indonesia’s fragile democracy.

Support for populist authoritarianism

The question remains why their authoritarian approach is so appealing. Why are many Indonesian voters supporting candidates that are potentially going to eliminate their voices and votes? Why did hundreds of thousands join protests against Basuki?

These questions appear even harder to answer considering Indonesia’s achievements after the country began its era of democracy in the last 1990s. Right after the abrupt departure of the authoritarian Soeharto regime, many Indonesians went through years of extreme hardship and violent conflict. The poverty rate escalated to 24 percent in 1998, and there were bouts of communal violence that killed thousands of people. A few years later, however, the new system of governance began to consolidate, violence was largely curtailed and the economy began to recover.

The success in poverty reduction was even more remarkable considering the increase in population, from 200 million in 1998 to more than 250 million in 2016, when the poverty rate was just over 10 percent. The absolute number of poor remained about the same, but the number of Indonesians with enough money to consume the necessary amount of calories has grown by 60 million in less than two decades. While fertility rates decreased, the number of Indonesians grew because life expectancy expanded from 66 years to 70 years.

Of course, it is not only the length of life that counts. The World Health Organization adds morbidity and health status to calculate expected years of life in good health. The resulting “healthy life expectancy” increased in Indonesia from 58 years in 2000 to 62 years in 2012. The UN Human Development Index calculates access to education, health care, basic social services, longer life expectancy and so forth, and it also recorded a substantial improvement, from 0.6 in 1998 to almost 0.7 in 2014.

What happened in Indonesia reflects improvements in the general livelihood of humankind. A recent study by the Swedish author Johan Norberg, titled “Progress,” summarizes these improvements. Undernourishment declined from 50 percent to about 10 percent of the global population between 1945 and 2015, while the population exploded from less than 2.5 billion to more than 7 billion. In absolute numbers, this means the number of poor fell from 1.25 billion in 1945 to 700 million in 2015, while the number of those living above the poverty line increased from 1.25 billion to 6.3 billion. This success was shared on all continents.

Yet despite all these unprecedented improvements, there is considerable discontent, and not only in Indonesia. What are the reasons? The French economist Thomas Piketty famously denounced wealth inequality; others blame income inequality and unemployment rates. A survey by Oxford University showed that it was mostly the fear of globalization that made people vote for ultra-right-wing populist parties, such as Alternative for Germany (Af D), the Freedom Party in Austria, the UK Independence Party and the National Front in France. All these factors feed into the agenda of populists on the left or right, and they matter in the domestic political arena, where populists nurture a frustration with the political elite and fan the fears of being disadvantaged or alienated. However, they do not sufficiently explain populist authoritarianism.


Authoritarian populists share a particular agenda to dismantle democracy, political competition and the voice and participation of others. They appear more successful in newly established and less consolidated democracies. A good case study can be found in the formerly divided Germany. In the western parts of the country that have a longer democratic history, the populist authoritarian Af D has little chance in local elections. In the East German city of Bitterfeld, however, where unemployment fell from 20 percent in 2003 to 8 percent in 2016, the Af D won 32 percent of the vote in early 2016. Likewise, unemployment rates in Poland and Hungary have gone down after the economic crisis in 2009, but people are supporting authoritarian leaders.

There are three factors that need to be added to the explanation of populist authoritarianism: the leaders are able to instill a nationalist pride in the electorate, a fear of aliens trying to dominate the nation and a belief that representative democracy undermines the well-being of the nation if it is not being strictly guided by a strong leader.

Russian President Vladimir Putin rules with an iron hand by having instilled a fear of Western dominance within the young Russian democracy. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s success in dismantling the fragile Turkish democracy was achieved by evoking fear of Kurdish terrorists and the Gülen movement. Prime Minister Viktor Orban claims to fight old and active communist elites in his attempt to curtail democracy in Hungary.

The fears of the electorate are basically a sense of impotence that is not only being triggered by the abusive behavior of the elite. It results from the reluctance or inability of people to engage in an increasingly complex world. Adolescents, for example, face an unprecedented amount of decisions when identifying their personal paths in life. From education, to places of residence, to lifestyle and work, there are multiple options displayed in real time on the inevitable gadgets in everyone’s hands.

At work, the situation has moved from complicated to complex. Complicated systems can only be understood with increasingly specialized skills and knowledge. Complex systems, however, are determined by a confusing number of individually evolving components that influence one another. This complexity generally escapes comprehension with just one particular set of skills and expertise. Leadership coaches teach corporate executives how to deal with a world that is determined by this increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, called VUCA in management lingo. Unfortunately, nobody teaches those who are not in highly paid leadership positions how to adapt to

constant change and disruption. Left on their own and without support, it appears that women with multitasking abilities gain easier access to this new world than monotasking males.

The Sinus market research company labels those who can cope and thrive in the modern world as “high achievers,” “adaptive pragmatists” or “movers and shakers.” Others struggle and are part of the “precarious” or “escapist” milieus. Some of them have given up and withdrawn from a world they consider incomprehensible and undesirable. They are more prone to break social rules such as compassion and tolerance. Frustration with their low social status makes them inclined to blame and look down on others. Most of them are male.

Modern challenges to paternalist leadership

Men traditionally held powerful positions in society and were hardly ever challenged to justify this. This changes in a world where women are the better graduates in several university disciplines and push into leadership positions that were previously reserved for men. The relative inadequacy of men in dealing with complexity makes it worse for them in the modern world. This is particularly evident when looking at Islamic communities whose men face an immediate drop in their status after migrating to Europe. On the surface, violent protests by Muslim youth in the suburbs of Paris in 2005 were against police harassment and unemployment, but it was basically an explosion of the frustrations of an exclusively male group. Their powerlessness triggered their violence and made them look down on others. The French government was not their only target, but also their sisters who had joined earlier demonstrations protesting male violence against women in the suburbs.

Men deplore disempowerment, and not only in migrant communities. The mass demonstrations in Jakarta against Governor Basuki consisted almost entirely of male participants. There was the fear that he undermined Islam; others were uncomfortable with Chinese influence within society; and yet others felt victimized by Basuki’s often-ruthless modernization policies. Different men joined the demonstrations for different reasons, but all basically felt disempowered.

Traditionally, Indonesians are used to interacting with elders and superiors with great respect and obedience. Positions of power were generally reserved for men. In return, people expect decisiveness, strong leadership and sufficient attention to their own concerns. Nowadays, elders, family fathers and leaders in general are facing competition from the Internet when they advise people and their families on work and life issues. That undermines their position. Some can adapt to the changing world, but others struggle to maintain their right to set rules and exercise power in the modern VUCA world.

In a country as highly religious as Indonesia, even Islam does not appear undisputed. Prasmanan is a popular Indonesian buffet where people take their pick from an available set of choices. “Islam prasmanan” refers to the attitude of people comparing religious edicts and directives to find the one that suits personal preferences. When a local leader declares a certain behavior in line with, or opposed to, the interpretation of the holy scripts, there are other statements from other leaders elsewhere who came to a contrary conclusion.

It is well understood that those who experience an erosion of power blame external influences that undermine the paternalist values of their culture and religion. In Europe and the United States, this sense of deprivation has led to the populist resistance of mostly white men who subscribe to a new nationalism and call for the primacy of sovereignty and territorial integrity. In Indonesia, it was arguably this same discontent that brought hundreds of thousands of Indonesians out to demonstrate against Basuki, all of them for different reasons but all guided by feelings of powerlessness. Populists managed to feast on these feelings.

The threat in Indonesia

Prabowo Subianto, Gatot Nurmantyo and Habib Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the FPI, claim to defend Indonesia from alien attacks on its national culture, sovereignty and

morale. Prabowo rallied his party members in early January, claiming that the nation and its leaders could be bought off. At the same time, military chief Gatot made the bold decision – uncoordinated with the national leadership – to break off military cooperation with Australia after an alleged insult to the Indonesian nation. Meanwhile, the FPI’s entire legitimacy is built on the paternalistic notion that Islam and morality in Indonesia are under siege from foreign, Christian or heterodox influences. They claim to uphold morality by raiding bars and nightclubs.

Prabowo, Gatot and Rizieq have several things in common. They evoke the fear of losing a particular identity through the interference of others, and they claim to defend that identity, which consists largely of paternalistic norms and rejects modern ways of life. More important, their populism is not just about denouncing the rule of a despised elite – it is authoritarian at the core. Prabowo himself has been accused of human rights abuses during his military career, and he was found responsible for the kidnapping of antiSoeharto activists. Many observers believe he plotted to take over the country when Soeharto resigned in 1998. Using aggressive and strongly xenophobic rhetoric during his presidential election campaign in 2014, Prabowo still portrays himself as the strongman who will fight Indonesia’s alleged enemies.

Gatot’s frequent reference to “proxy wars” instigated by foreign powers to access Indonesian resources and its society strongly implies that he wants the Army involved in domestic affairs. Around 50,000 village defense officers have been placed in villages around the country to clear 200,000 hectares of land for rice cultivation. Moreover, the “Defend the Nation” (Bela Negara) program provides civilians with military training and ideological indoctrination, and it plans to “disseminate the values of state defense in educational, workplace and neighborhood environments.” Such programs evoke memories of the New Order period, when the role of the Army in internal matters was a key component of the authoritarian regime.

Rizieq’s Islamic Defenders Front is a vigilante organization that built its reputation through raids and violent attacks on others. The organization demonstrated successfully against the Indonesian version of Playboy magazine, raided Asia’s largest gay film festival and managed to have a Lady Gaga concert in Jakarta canceled, just to name a few incidents. Their violence and openly Islamist agenda is diametrically opposed to the pluralism of ideas and voices in a representative democracy.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne Applebaum recently noted that is has become much easier to share false information, and that politicians have figured out what kind of fake information appeals to people. Indonesia and its social media- savvy population provide a case in point. Rumors on social media that 10 million Chinese migrants had illegally entered the country to work were obviously wrong, but managed to leave the desired emotion that only suits the authoritarian populists’ claim to protect Indonesia. Rumors such as these are preparing the electorate for the 2019 presidential election.

President Joko will surely campaign for a second term in office. His main rival could again be Prabowo. Gatot, meanwhile, appears to be advertising himself as, at least, a vice presidential candidate. The role of the FPI remains less clear. It experienced a bout of popularity when its interests in the Jakarta election were aligned with some of the prospective 2019 presidential contenders, but its violent ways make it vulnerable and it might be sidelined again.

Many observers found the harsh rhetoric and smear campaigns of the 2014 election a severe test for the country’s young and vulnerable democracy. Looking at the gubernatorial election in Jakarta as a testing ground and pathway to national power, the coming contest in 2019 will be even more disruptive at a time when democratic principles and institutions have not further consolidated.

Another showdown between Joko and Prabowo in 2019 may make the harsh rhetoric of 2014 pale in comparison. The authoritarian populists have had many chances to test their machinery and message, and they have gained in strength and numbers. Their ability to lure the electoral support of parties and voters will prove an even larger threat to Indonesia’s democracy than five years ago.

What is the antidote?

So what can realistically be done to prevent this from happening? Most importantly, while skilled technocrats are needed in key positions in government, what can be done to build a strong emotional appeal to voters and the public in general?

American economist William Easterly made this point in his December 2016 article, “Democracy Is Dying as Technocrats Watch,” in Foreign Policy magazine. Referring to the recent elections in the United States, he deplored the technocrats’ inability to stand up to populists who undermine freedom. To him, Hillary Clinton’s technocratic campaign against Donald Trump was a good case in point, with her “bullet point plans to solve 41 different measurable problems, each one containing multiple subplans to solve multiple subproblems.” In the end, the more populist candidate won because “the long reign of technocracy has deprived us of the moral weapons needed to defend the core values that are the foundation of democracy,” Easterly wrote.

The more emotional appeal requires a modern and effective communication strategy that highlights benefits of policies for target audiences, rather than listing their technical features. For instance, the Indonesian government’s tax amnesty program had collected revenues of about $7 billion by October 2016 and a further $1 billion by the end of last year. Highlighting these numbers pleases technocratic insiders but does not speak to the public. A more effective communication strategy would have spelled out the specific benefits of, for example, additional investments in health care and education. The same applies to infrastructure development, electric power generation and improvements in investment opportunities.

These are all key targets of the Joko administration and have achieved some levels of success, but the specific benefits for citizens have not been effectively communicated. If only populist authoritarian leaders speak a language that people understand, then it will not be a surprise when well-intentioned and better-skilled technocrats lose the fight for freedom and democracy. Meanwhile, the Indonesian government needs to actively defend democracy against the two main protagonists of populist authoritarianism: political Islamists and parts of the military that portray themselves as better suited to solve domestic problems than civilian leaders.

Political Islamists had their days of glory in the Jakarta gubernatorial campaign because their interests were aligned with those of key power players preparing for the 2019 national elections. The FPI was once an organization of violent thugs at the margin of society, but it became the leading voice of the political opposition to Joko and Basuki. Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s main mass Islamic organizations, have not been able to prevent this, and both need to reclaim lost positions within their constituencies. Nahdlatul Ulama in particular needs to regain its internal unity, and Joko’s government should prioritize supporting this.

When the Indonesian government asked the military to ensure national food production targets through the Army Supporting Food Security Program, it nurtured an understanding that the Army was better equipped to deal with domestic matters than civilians. Likewise, the government’s state defense program entrusts the Army with providing 100 million Indonesians quasi-military training and ideological indoctrination, which only helps facilitate the military’s outreach to youth, and into the economy and society. If the government were to instead reduce the military’s involvement in domestic affairs it would starve the populist authoritarian claim that, on balance, an authoritarian system is better suited than a democracy to ensure socioeconomic development in Indonesia.

Rainer Heufers is executive director of the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies in Jakarta.

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