INDONESIAN ELECTIONS HAVE a history of generating strange bedfellows. Party affiliations or ideological leanings have rarely stood in the way of whisky-swilling military generals cosying up to the Mecca-oriented pious or known human rights violators standing arm-in-arm with promoters of civil liberties.
Rank opportunism is par for the course in electoral politics in many parts of the world. What’s unique about Indonesia is the number of independents, without a history of political affiliation, who rise to significant positions of power. It is then that various parties begin to woo them by offering them an institutional vehicle for their ambitions.
A prominent example of this process is Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, the archipelago’s current president. Formerly a furniture seller, Jokowi only joined a political party, the PDI-P (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Pertjuangan), one year before he contested (and won) his first electoral race for mayor of the city of Solo in 2005.
Previous President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-14) is another case in point. Although in the early 2000s he had served in his predecessor and leader of PDI-P Megawati Sukarnoputri’s cabinet, he fought the 2004 presidential elections as head of a brand new Democratic Party which had been set up by his supporters purely as a vehicle for him to contest.
Amongst the party-less contenders for next year’s presidential race is Erick Thohir, currently Indonesia’s minister for state-owned enterprises. Thohir’s main institutional affiliation is as the head of the country’s football association. He has also recently become active in the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim civic organisation, and a key influencer in the political landscape. Thohir is reportedly in talks with several parties for potential support next year.
The fluidity of alliances between candidates and parties can be vertiginous, as between politicians themselves. These not only cut across party lines but also rational assumptions. For example, Jokowi’s greatest rival in both the 2014 and 2019 elections was Prabowo Subianto, head of the Gerindra Party (another example of a political party established solely to support a single politician—in this case, Subianto).
Subianto is a former son-in-law of military dictator Suharto and led the country’s Special Forces in the years before the latter’s downfall in 1998. Accused of widespread human rights abuses, Subianto is seemingly the antithesis of the humble, anti-corruption, civil rights-supporting Jokowi. Both election contests that the two faced off in were marked by ‘black campaigns’ run by the Subianto camp, including claims that Jokowi was a Chinese Christian, when in fact he is a Javanese Muslim.
In his current term as president, Jokowi’s USP has been making friends across political lines. Soon after being elected in April 2019, he bowled a gargantuan googly by appointing Subianto as his defence minister, thereby garnering the support of Gerindra in parliament.
Even more bizarrely, Jokowi will potentially back Subianto in next year’s election, which he himself is barred from contesting due to term limits. One of Jokowi’s big support bases, locally dubbed as Jokowi Mania (JoMan), has done a complete about-face and openly thrown its heft behind Subianto. JoMan leader Immanuel Ebenezer recently said that the group had decided to give its votes to the Gerinda Party chairman because he is “an innovative and brave leader”.
Jokowi’s elevation to president, as a political outsider, was the exception that many hoped would herald a broader change. However, his time in power has seen several of his own family members unexpectedly enter the political fray
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In public, Jokowi has refrained from overt support for any potential successor, but the Indonesian media says he is partial to either PDI-P politician and Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo or former arch-nemesis Subianto.
There is however a major spoke in the wheel for anyone that Jokowi may, or may not, end up backing: his boss, the chairperson of PDI-P, and kingmaker from behind the throne, Megawati Sukarnoputri. Megawati was a reluctant Jokowi supporter to begin with and is known to have seen him as a placeholder for her own children.
An erstwhile president herself and daughter of independent Indonesia’s first President Sukarno, Megawati is rooting for her daughter, House Speaker Puan Maharani, to succeed Jokowi. She’s been open in her disapproval of anyone supporting Ganjar Pranowo, the other party hopeful. The problem for Megawati is that Puan Maharani has consistently polled terribly and is hugely unpopular. It will be difficult, although not unimaginable, for Megawati to foist her on PDI-P in next year’s elections.
Dynastic politics has been a consistent feature of Indonesian elections. Jokowi’s elevation to president, as a political outsider, was the exception that many hoped would herald a broader change. However, his time in power has seen several of his own family members unexpectedly enter the political fray. Jokowi’s oldest son Gibran Rakabuming Raka is currently the mayor of Surakarta in Java while his son-in-law Bobby Nasution runs Medan—Indonesia’s fifth largest city.
CLEARLY, THERE ARE ways in which Indonesia and India are siblings beyond their nomenclatural similarity. They share a political landscape featuring dynasties, unwieldy coalitions, religious clerics, and opportunistic alliances. Their general elections have also been in temporal sync. Jokowi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi both won their two terms in 2014 and 2019.
Further, the list of the fundamental challenges confronting Indonesia today is uncannily familiar in India. On the economic front, both nations need to boost manufacturing competitiveness to create the millions of jobs required to ensure their young and growing populations become a demographic dividend rather than a Malthusian disaster.
‘Bhinekka Tunggal Ika’ (multiple but one), the Indonesian national motto, is, in essence, identical to the Indian catchphrase of ‘unity in diversity’, and they underscore the nations’ comparable accomplishments in having managed to sustain national identities in societies fractured along ethnic and religious lines. Nonetheless, ensuring the rights of minorities remains a fraught undertaking for both countries, as they must ensure that democracy does not turn into the tyranny of the majority.
What’s unique about Indonesia is the number of independents, without a history of political affiliation, who rise to significant positions of power. It is then that various parties begin to woo them by offering them an institutional vehicle for their ambitions
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IN THE COMING YEARS, the global spotlight is likely to shine more than usual on what is sometimes called the most important invisible country in the world. Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority state, its third-biggest democracy, and its fourth-most-populous country. It has a youthful demographic and a population of 276 million people. Yet, it has consistently punched below its weight on the international stage.
Indonesia has grown faster than any other $1 trillion-plus economy, other than China and India, over the last decade. And it is emerging as a dynamic market for digital services, with over 100 million people collectively spending $80 billion a year on everything from e-payments to apps for on-demand motorcycle rides.
Moreover, while size gives it clout, Indonesia has a geopolitical advantage in not having direct stakes in the rivalries that roil the region. It is therefore a natural choice for the crucial role of mediator in a neighbourhood that is increasingly shaped and squeezed by the China-US rivalry.
In foreign policy, Indonesia once again displays an affinity to India, reflecting a tradition of non-alignment that both share going back to the days of Sukarno and Nehru. For example, Jakarta seeks economic ties with both Beijing and Washington. Like India, Indonesia, too, has refrained from taking sides in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Having passed on the presidency of the G20 to India a few months ago, Indonesia will likely spend the next year more focused on its upcoming domestic elections than on posturing on the world stage. But the world itself would do well to keep an eye on developments in the Southeast Asian archipelago.
About The Author
Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has spent the last two decades reporting from China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. Her most recent book is Orienting: An Indian in Japan. She is a contributor to Open
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