Drivers of Populism in Indonesia

By Marcus Mietzner

Joko Widodo/Jokowi give a speech in his final rally of presidential election in 2019. Source:  kitingfield/Shutterstock.SHARE

Indonesia is now a prime candidate for long-term populist influence. The Australian Institute of International Affairs is pleased to award Marcus Mietzner the Boyer Prize for the best original article published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs in 2020. This is an extract from that article.

Indonesia is an important, yet understudied, case of how populism can creep into a system in which many structural preconditions do not appear to be supportive of populist challenges. And yet, three competing forms of populism have contested power since the early 2010s, and the impact of this rivalry has damaged democracy considerably. This does not mean, however, that the political system is entirely colonised by populists: established parties remain relevant by dominating legislatures and building alliances with, as well as extracting concessions from, the existing populists. The ideological ends of Indonesia’s Islamist-pluralist spectrum are the segments with the highest levels of populism, suggesting that religio-ideological divisions along identity lines and support for populism are causally linked.

Much of the past scholarship on populism has focused on economic crises and hardship as main causes of populism. However, in Indonesia, the high prevalence of populism in the upper and middle classes, with few concerns about their personal finances, and its clustering at the ends of the ideological spectrum, suggests that Indonesia follows new trends in populism.

No longer fitting into old notions of populists attracting primarily the poor, new forms of populism have addressed a different audience. Donald Trump, for instance, did not chiefly attract the economically underprivileged. Instead, Trump appealed most strongly to rural and suburban white voters anxious that racial minorities could overtake them on the social ladder, and that Muslim immigrants threatened their cultural hegemony. Similarly, the rise of the German right-wing, populist party AfD coincided with an economic boom and the lowest unemployment levels in decades – but also with the influx of one million Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Thus, twenty-first century populism is only partially about real, experienced economic hardships. More importantly, it is about perceptions that fringe groups could threaten the religio-cultural position of one’s own constituency. Indonesia, with most populist voters saying that they are doing economically well, appears to suit this pattern too.

Indonesian populists are closely tied to one of the camps in the country’s main ideological divide. The Islamist-pluralist divide in Indonesia is comparable to that between the white majority and the growing ethno-religious minorities in the United States – or many European countries, for that matter. In both Indonesia and Western countries affected by populism, the existence of deep social divisions provides a fertile ground for populism. This is because these social divisions are not only about personal economic status – a status that can fluctuate with the normal cycles of the economy. More fundamentally, these divisions concern identity, and therefore fixed features of a person’s biography.

In Indonesia, voters strongly believing in pluralism or Islamism are most fraught with notions that their identity is under attack, and they flocked to either Jokowi or Prabowo and the Islamists to defend those identities. Jokowi, ultimately, was more successful because the minorities voted en bloc for him.

Thus, the first major precondition for populism to flourish is a significant social divide, whether of a racial-religious nature, as in Indonesia and the United States, or more defined by regional or class tensions such as the ones plaguing Thailand and the Philippines. But the existence of such divisions is not sufficient – it requires the active politicisation of these tensions by a populist leader. This is done more aggressively by some populists than others, but it mostly involves the activation of a discourse about socio-economic inequalities framed within the language of overarching primordial and ideological divisions.

In other words, existing economic inequalities are often repackaged not as issues of macroeconomic management, but as proof of the religio-cultural majority’s unjust exploitation by elites from a minority group. In Prabowo’s case, he advanced the narrative that ordinary citizens, mostly Muslims, were short-changed by foreigners and their domestic lackeys. For the Islamists, economic inequalities are a clear-cut divide between poorer Muslims and well-to-do non-Muslims. Jokowi, on the other hand, was careful not to escalate social tensions and thus tried to portray inequalities as an issue that better governance could fix. Nevertheless, his campaign too drew from legacies of inequalities that, so he suggested, only his specific approach to politics could overcome.

In politicising inequalities, then, populists tend to draw from verifiable socio-economic trends but often overstate them and inject them with elements of identity politics. For instance, inequality did rise in Indonesia from the 1990s to the 2010s, before declining under Jokowi after 2014. But despite these inequalities, most Indonesians express no major concern about them – indeed, in a September 2018 survey, only 19 percent of Indonesians believed that inequality was rising, constituting a new low. Economic data also suggests that most Indonesians enjoyed a substantial increase in their living standards since democratisation began, with the national poverty rate more than halved between in 1999 and 2018. The general satisfaction with personal conditions in the populism surveys mirrors this. This picture of satisfaction changes, however, when respondents are asked if they feel disadvantaged vis-à-vis certain racial-religious minorities. In an August 2018 survey, 54 percent of all respondents believed the role of ethnic Chinese in the Indonesian economy was too large, and in the same survey, 38 percent of Muslims thought that Muslims were worse off economically than non-Muslims, with an upward trend. Thus, while high levels of inequality per se are certainly supportive of populist campaigns, it is only their politicisation within the framework of identity politics that makes them a formidable populist instrument.

This politicisation of inequalities – as the second key ingredient of populism – leads directly into its third: the victimisation of a minority as a vehicle of populist mobilisation. As Trump’s attacks on both “the elite” and immigrants demonstrated, populists tend to pick target communities that can be either richer or poorer than the demographic majority. That pattern also holds in Indonesia. The typically wealthy ethnic Chinese have been the preferred target of chauvinist and Islamist populists, describing them as assistants to foreign conspiracies to undermine Indonesia’s economy. This anti-Chinese rhetoric has long resonated well in Indonesia, but it reached new heights during the 2014 campaign, when activists associated with the Prabowo camp tried to falsely depict Jokowi as the son of a Chinese Singaporean, and during the 2016 anti-Ahok rallies.

Like Trump, however, Indonesia’s populists also kicked down. The Islamists targeted socio-religious minorities such as Ahmadis, Shiites, LGBTI citizens, or atheists to mobilise their base, and the other populist currents endorsed their discrimination. Jokowi, fearing to be seen as pro-LGBTI, presided over the police’s harshest anti-LGBTI campaign in Indonesia’s history. And while he took a distance from the anti-Chinese rhetoric of his populist rivals, he directed his attacks to “the super-rich.”

Lastly, the fourth driver of successful populist campaigns is the support of established parties for populists seeking office. Overwhelmed by the populists’ strong showing in opinion polls, and anxious not to miss out on political spoils, mainstream parties have enabled populist takeovers or invited them to join government coalitions. This is true in Indonesia as it is in other places where populists have succeeded. Trump’s victory would not have been possible without the Republican Party that nominated him, and – as one of several examples from Europe – the rise to co-government of the Austrian right-wing party FPÖ would not have occurred without the support of the conservative mainstream party ÖVP. Mainstream actors have aligned with populists to benefit from their electoral appeal and in order to limit their power while in government – but they often end up as assistants of populist rule. While they may be able to prevent some authoritarian excesses in that role, their own campaigns to corruptly access available state resources tends to aggravate the democratic deficit even further.

Deep divisions over identity issues, their politicisation within an inequality discourse, the targeting of one or more minorities seen as a threat to the demographic majority, and a political establishment willing to support populist rule – these have been the conditions producing populism in Indonesia, and they reflect the situation in other countries as well. Hence, descriptions of populism that focus on political and economic crises, personal frustrations over job losses and financial insecurities, or a general revolt of the poor against rich elites no longer capture the full dynamics of twenty-first century populism.

Contemporary populism, in Indonesia and elsewhere, has firmly arrived in the middle and upper classes, mobilising their anxieties over losing their economic, political, and cultural dominance in increasingly globalised societies. Race, religion and other sectarian identities are the main arenas in which populists operate – the very arenas, of course, that the modernisation of politics had aimed to make obsolete.

Marcus Mietzner is Associate Professor at the Department of Political and Social Change, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University, Canberra. His primary research interest is Indonesian politics, and he has published widely in Asian Studies and Political Science journals. He is the author of Reinventing Asian Populism: Jokowi’s Rise, Democracy, and Political Contestation in Indonesia (East West Center Hawaii, 2015).

This is an edited extract from Mietzner’s article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs titled “Rival populisms and the democratic crisis in Indonesia: chauvinists, Islamists and technocrats.” It is republished with permission.


Categories: Asia, Indonesia

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