Southeast Asia’s Troubling Elections: Nondemocratic Pluralism in Indonesia

Issue Date October 2019
Volume 30
Issue 4
Page Numbers 104-118
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Though pluralism and democracy are generally seen as being mutually supportive, recent developments in Indonesia suggest that they can also be in tension. Over the last five years, an old social cleavage separating pluralists from Islamists has been reactivated. In the 2019 presidential election, the incumbent, Joko Widodo, won by increasing support from religious minorities and traditionalist Muslims; his authoritarian-populist challenger, Prabowo Subianto, was backed by groups promoting a greater role for Islam in political life. Empowered by this socioreligious polarization, Widodo’s government has relied on increasingly illiberal measures to contain the populist-Islamist alliance, undermining some of Indonesia’s democratic achievements in the process.

When Indonesia, whose more than 260 million people make it the world’s third most populous democracy, held national elections on 17 April 2019, it was easy to view the outcome as a confirmation of the country’s democratic status quo. The incumbent president, Joko Widodo (commonly known as Jokowi), defeated an authoritarian-era general, Prabowo Subianto, by 55 to 44 percent. Jokowi’s parliamentary coalition scored an even more impressive result, gaining 60 percent of the seats on 63 percent of the vote. Prabowo ran a classic populist campaign, backed by illiberal Islamist groups. Jokowi, by contrast, offered a mellow developmentalist vision and cited his first-term achievements. He drew support from religious minorities as well as from Islamic organizations that have long advocated religious pluralism.

About the Authors

Edward Aspinall

Edward Aspinall is a professor at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.

View all work by Edward Aspinall

Marcus Mietzner

Marcus Mietzner is an associate professor at the Coral Bell School.

View all work by Marcus Mietzner

At first sight, therefore, Indonesia may seem like an exception to the populist and illiberal trend that has been sweeping the world in recent years. The reality, however, is more troubling. The election continued the country’s slow-motion slide toward democratic regression, and marked a decoupling of the politics of religious pluralism from those of democracy. In this decoupling process, Jokowi and other backers of pluralism have become less concerned with upholding other democratic ideals; instead, the defense of Indonesia as a nation-state for all religions has become a supreme, almost sacrosanct, goal. In their view, pluralism’s foes—that is, the Islamists supporting Prabowo—must be kept from power at all costs, even if this means reducing democratic freedoms.

This tendency was evident in all phases of the 2019 electoral process. The approach of the election saw Jokowi—a self-described defender of democracy during the previous balloting in 2014—applying increasingly authoritarian measures to constrain the opposition. The results themselves [End Page 104] reveal the sharpest polarization that Indonesia has seen since the 1950s between religious pluralists and proponents of a stronger role for Islam. And the months since the elections have been marred by violence linked to an Islamist opposition eager to overturn the results, while the government has responded with formal treason charges against opposition figures. In combination, then, both the government (aligned with pluralists) and the opposition (siding with Islamists) played a part in undermining the quality of Indonesian democracy. This remains so even though the elections went forward in an orderly manner and the populist challenger lost.

The decoupling of religious pluralism from broader democratic norms is an underappreciated part of the current global democratic decline. Much of the literature that grapples with the causes and dynamics of this decline sees support for sociocultural pluralism and democracy as rising and falling in concert, with both currently endangered.1 There is good reason to think this way: Elected populist leaders have been the decline’s leading architects, and such leaders often win elections by focusing popular ire on migrants, religious minorities, or other vulnerable groups. In power, elected populists such as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte have stimulated or even led campaigns of discrimination or worse against such groups (Muslims in India, small-time drug users or dealers in the Philippines).

While scholars have pointed out that pluralism and democracy can conflict with each other, there is general agreement that pluralism, when strong, inherently “helps to hold in check the populist temptation.”2 In Indonesia, this observation seemed to hold true in 2014. Five years later, however, things had changed. Pluralists checked a populist backed by Islamists, but approved quasi-autocratic measures to do so. This combination echoes events in post-Mubarak Egypt, where many religious pluralists at first supported democratization but later, following Islamist electoral victories, welcomed the military’s return to power via the July 2013 coup.

After 2014: The Democratic Cleavage Fades

The 2014 and 2019 presidential elections featured the same two candidates, but the contexts in which the respective votes took place differed widely. In the prior year, we and many other observers of Indonesia’s politics had thought that the survival of the country’s democracy was at stake. There was a widespread sense, including among Jokowi’s supporters, of a stark choice between staying the democratic course and detouring into authoritarian regression.3

The reasons for this assessment were clear. The candidates had very different personal backgrounds and put forward starkly contrasting political [End Page 105] visions. Prabowo had held high military rank during the final years of Suharto’s long-lived authoritarian regime (1966–98). A onetime son-in-law to Suharto, Prabowo had been a heavy-handed enforcer with a record of violating human rights: In 1998, the army had cashiered him for his involvement in the disappearance of democracy activists. During the 2014 campaign, Prabowo said that he accepted democracy. Yet his preferred solutions to Indonesia’s problems were authoritarian. He vowed, for instance, to restore the original 1945 Constitution with its unchecked executive dominance.

Jokowi, by contrast, was a product of the post-1998 democratic era. Not politically active under authoritarianism, he rose to prominence through the new system of directly electing local-government leaders. He won the mayoralty of Solo, Central Java Province, in 2005. Seven years after that, he was elected governor of Jakarta (Indonesia’s capital is also a province). In both places, Jokowi’s hands-on style, easygoing way with voters, and development achievements made him popular. To be sure, he was not a sophisticated advocate for democratic ideas, and his political coalition (like Prabowo’s) contained former generals and others associated with the Suharto regime. But his political biography suggested that he was the democratic alternative to Prabowo.

In 2014, many democracy activists and voters saw such a democracy cleavage as the election’s master theme. Numerous former student and NGO leaders volunteered for Jokowi in order to stop Prabowo. Significant percentages of Jokowi’s voters, too, supported him because they rejected Prabowo’s authoritarian past and persona.4 Some foreign scholars viewed Jokowi’s democratic credentials with skepticism, but that view was not widely shared in Indonesia.5 An event following the election seemed to confirm that democracy had been at stake: After Jokowi won but before he was sworn in, the parliamentary coalition backing Prabowo voted to reverse a key post-Suharto reform by eliminating direct local-government elections. It took a public outcry to induce the outgoing president to overrule the change.

Soon after Jokowi came to power, however, the salience of the democracy cleavage began to subside. The new president showed himself less interested in further democratic reforms than in an economic and welfare agenda for which he wanted a stable governing coalition.6 He consigned several former activists to secondary jobs while giving key posts to retired Suharto-era military officers. To shore up Jokowi’s coalition, his government intervened in the internal affairs of certain parties allied with Prabowo, replacing their leaders with Jokowi loyalists. As a result of this and similar actions (and inactions), democracy activists and scholars gave Jokowi’s first year as president negative reviews.7 The quality of Indonesian democracy had begun a downward slide.

Then a 2016–17 imbroglio involving Jokowi’s replacement as governor of Jakarta accelerated the decline. When Jokowi became president, [End Page 106] the governorship passed to his deputy, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (popularly known as Ahok). A member of Indonesia’s small ethnic-Chinese minority and a Christian, Ahok is a politician with a famously abrasive style. While many Jakartans appreciated his efforts to fight red tape and corruption, many Islamists—as well as conservative Muslims more generally—objected to the notion of an ethnic-Chinese and non-Muslim politician governing the nation’s capital.

In late 2016, attempts to remove Ahok from office crystallized into a mass movement. While campaigning for reelection, Ahok told an audience in September that they should not be “fooled” by persons using a particular Koranic verse to say that it was forbidden for Muslims to vote for an unbeliever.8 An array of Muslim preachers, scholars, and activists launched a movement to demand that Ahok be arrested and charged with blasphemy. One of their rallies, held in Jakarta on 2 December 2016, became the largest mass demonstration in Indonesian history. The movement—known as “212” from the date of that giant gathering—became a rallying point for both mainstream and more radical Islamic organizations, including street thugs organized as the Islamic Defenders Group (FPI).9 Elite backing from Jokowi’s political opponents, including Prabowo, soon arrived as well.

The forces of 212 won the battle. Jokowi, seeing the movement’s potential to harm his own position, went against police advice and approved Ahok’s prosecution. Ahok was found guilty of blasphemy and imprisoned, shortly after losing the governorship in an election marked by sharp religious polarization.10

The Religious Cleavage Deepens

The anti-Ahok movement was important both because it dramatized trends that had been increasingly worrying pluralists for the better part of a decade, and because it injected new life into the identity-based cleavage that had long been an underlying feature of Indonesian politics. Furthermore, it sped the weakening of the democratic cleavage, as Jokowi—with his pluralist constituency behind him—resorted to authoritarian measures to curtail the Islamists.

Indonesia’s cleavage between pluralists and Islamists has changed significantly in form over the decades. In the 1950s, during Indonesia’s first and ill-fated period of democratic rule, this cleavage led to fierce contestation over the constitutional basis of the state. A constituent assembly, in session between 1956 and 1959, deadlocked over whether the constitution should include a provision making Islamic law obligatory for Muslims. The assembly’s failure delivered a pretext for democracy’s opponents to usher in autocratic rule.

Suharto dealt with this cleavage by suppressing it. He was politically authoritarian, but he supported a religiously and ethnically pluralist vision [End Page 107] based on Pancasila, the “Five Principles” that founding president Sukarno had proclaimed as Indonesia’s guiding philosophy in 1945. Importantly, Pancasila includes a commitment to monotheistic religion but not to Islam specifically. This compromise embodies something that Indonesia scholar Jeremy Menchik calls “Godly Nationalism.” It allows the government to provide financial and institutional support to religious organizations, but without enforcing Islamic law or giving the state a formal Islamic identity.11

The democratic restoration of 1998 lifted restrictions on expression of Islamist political aspirations. While most mainstream Islamic organizations had reconciled themselves to the Pancasila compromise during the Suharto years, the cleavage between pluralists and proponents of a greater role for Islam had survived. In fact, a survey of politicians in 2018 showed that it is the strongest, and arguably the only, cleavage that divides Indonesia’s elite.12 But for much of the first two decades of post-Suharto democracy, even this division was blurred by the all-inclusive and cartelistic nature of governing coalitions, which gave both Islamists and pluralists plenty of opportunities to share the spoils of office.13

If the religious cleavage was papered over by patronage distribution at the elite level, in other arenas it remained relevant. There continued to be small-scale battles both at the national level (over such issues as a pornography bill, education policy, and whether homosexuality should be outlawed) and in the regions (over local regulations incorporating aspects of Islamic law, or in controversies about heterodox sects and non-Islamic places of worship).14 The most radical proponents of a stronger role for Islam rejected the compromises of the Islamic parties in parliament and took the fight to the streets, as in the Ahok case.

Islamist ranks have been swelled by urbanization and the growth of an educated Islamic middle class, combined with the growing influence of ideas that originate in the Middle East. Veils on women are more common than before. So are Muslims-only housing estates, and with them a proliferation of small-scale Salafist and other Islamist groups. Some, the FPI among them, have been acting as militias and targeting people whom they judge to be violating Islamic norms. Many pluralists worry that they are slowly losing ground in a long-term struggle over the nature of Indonesia.

Against this background, the consolidation of Islamist groups during the anti-Ahok demonstrations triggered an equivalent hardening of positions among pluralists. This hardening in turn caused a gradual dissociation [End Page 108] between support for pluralism and the idea of democratic freedoms. This decoupling has further blunted the democracy cleavage and made the identity split of Islamist versus pluralist the only divide that matters. Unnerved by the anti-Ahok mobilization, many of the country’s religious minorities took it as a dire sign of their growing vulnerability. Areas with large non-Muslim populations hosted candlelight vigils in solidarity with Ahok. Equally concerned were Muslims with secular or simply pluralist inclinations, including many members of Jokowi’s own Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Pluralists now warned, often in highly exaggerated terms, of an Indonesia that they feared could go the way of strife-ravaged Afghanistan or Syria.

Jokowi shared his pluralist supporters’ alarm. The 212 leaders openly wanted the president’s ouster even as Prabowo sought their support. In response, Jokowi and his government took two steps. First, Jokowi turned to increasingly authoritarian measures. For example, in July 2017 his government banned Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, the Indonesian branch of a transnational Islamist organization that over the preceding decade had gained popularity on Indonesian college campuses. In doing so, Jokowi was aiming a blow at an ideologically vulnerable component of the wider Islamist coalition: Hizbut Tahrir openly called for Indonesia to become part of a universal Islamic caliphate, leading to charges that it was hostile not merely to Pancasila but to the very idea of a sovereign Indonesian nation-state.

The ban on Hizbut Tahrir, however, was only part of a wider policy of “fighting illiberalism with illiberalism.”15 Jokowi’s government increasingly began to use law-enforcement agencies against its opponents. For instance, the police threatened the firebrand head of FPI, Habib Rizieq Shihab, with pornography charges in mid-2017, driving him into self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia. A range of leading government critics that included both Islamists and Prabowo supporters found themselves threatened with makar (rebellion) charges. Others were charged with criminal defamation or spreading hatred or hoaxes online. In 2018 the police cracked down on supporters of a “Change the President” movement that sought to organize anti-Jokowi street rallies. Such measures were accompanied by an ever more energetic ideological campaign reasserting the primacy of Pancasila and vowing stern action against those trying to challenge it.16

Pluralists applauded these authoritarian measures. Moves against Islamist leaders were justified as defenses of the Pancasila-based state, regardless of the methods used.17 Many NGOs that had once advocated both pluralism and democracy now chose to prioritize the former over the latter. It was during this phase that some of the activists who in 2014 had backed Jokowi as the candidate most closely resembling a champion of democracy began splitting with groups that were emphasizing pluralism. After the Hizbut Tahrir ban, a handful of prodemocracy activists invited [End Page 109] NGOs to discuss a legal challenge to this proscription, which had been enforced without a court order. Most of the pluralist NGOs refused to attend because they wanted no part of a case that might help Hizbut Tahrir.18 The prodemocracy activists who pushed the court challenge forward would later urge voters to stay home in 2019 on the grounds that both Jokowi and Prabowo were threats to human rights and democracy, but these activists’ numbers were tiny compared to the much larger pluralist group.

The second step that Jokowi took to counter the Islamist threat was to shore up his own Islamic credentials. For help, he looked to key Islamic organizations. In particular, he sought support from leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). Founded in 1926, this is Indonesia’s (and the world’s) largest Islamic organization. It claims tens of millions of followers in this country of more than 260 million. Based on a loose network of rural religious boarding schools (or pesantren) and their leaders (the religious scholars or kiai), NU is steeped in Sunni Islam’s Shafi’i school of jurisprudence. Those affiliated with NU practice traditional rituals, such as praying at the tombs of saints, that more puritanical groups view with suspicion or outright condemn. Over the last decade or so, something akin to a siege mentality has taken hold in some quarters of NU, with leaders seeing their followers increasingly targeted by the outreach activities of Salafist and other Islamist groups. Responding to this threat, NU leaders promote what they call Islam Nusantara (Islam of the Archipelago), which they depict as a more moderate form of Islam better suited to Indonesian culture.

Finding their organization the frequent target of Islamic purification movements, leaders of NU have often sided with pluralist organizations throughout Indonesia’s modern history. Yet NU is a loose network and its political alignment is by no means consistent.19 Although NU contains strong pluralist currents, many kiai are deeply conservative on religious and social issues. For instance, Ma’ruf Amin, then NU’s most senior leader, signed a fatwa in 2016 confirming that Ahok had committed blasphemy. Decades earlier, in the 1950s, NU had supported the attempt to provide constitutional recognition to Islamic law, though most of its leaders adapted to pluralism during Suharto’s rule. The organization is thus a critical swing force on conflicts surrounding the place of Islam in the public sphere. This is especially true in periods of democratic politics, when it represents a massive potential vote bank.

After the Ahok affair, Jokowi went to great lengths to court NU support. He routinely visited pesantren and demonstrated public deference to leading kiai, including Ma’ruf Amin. He invited NU followers to carry out traditional religious rituals in the presidential palace. His government showered the organization with patronage, for instance lending its microcredit program roughly US$100 million in February 2017.20

Jokowi tried to improve his 2019 reelection prospects with three moves. First, he sought to expand his pluralist base by appealing to [End Page 110] conservative NU voters who wanted to guard their traditional religious practices from the Islamist threat. Second, he hoped (perhaps unrealistically) that his alliance with NU and frequent visits to sites of Islamic worship would take some of the edge off Islamist hostility and help him in conservative-Muslim strongholds such as West Java Province. Third, he wanted to highlight his infrastructure programs and welfare policies as achievements that both pluralist and Islamist voters would applaud. Being the democratic alternative to Prabowo was no longer something he sought to emphasize.21

Sharpening Polarization

Despite the Ahok upheaval and Jokowi’s own anxiety about threats to his presidency, his approval rating remained strong. He had no trouble assembling a coalition of parties to nominate him for reelection. In addition to the four parliamentary parties that had supported him in 2014, the two parties whose leaders Jokowi’s government had replaced switched allegiance from Prabowo to the president. Even as Jokowi looked like the almost-sure winner, however, he failed to gain approval for his vice-presidential pick, the pluralist NU intellectual and former Constitutional Court chief justice Mahfud MD. Seniority considerations led NU to urge Ma’ruf Amin’s nomination, a choice also backed by other parties, and Jokowi agreed to make the conservative cleric his running mate.

Selecting Ma’ruf helped Jokowi to portray his campaign as seeking to ease tensions between pluralists and more conservative Muslims. Ma’ruf’s role was to guard Jokowi against smears like the ones that he had faced in 2014, when he had been accused of being a Singapore-born Chinese Christian, of favoring communism, and of harboring hostility toward Islam. Ma’ruf, who was also the head of the Indonesian Council of Islamic Scholars, seemed well suited to lend Jokowi Islamic credibility and to reach voters who previously would not have considered voting for him. These included citizens in West Java and Banten (the latter being Ma’ruf’s home province), where Jokowi had lost by big margins in 2014, and where he was now determined to close the gap.

With Ma’ruf focusing on Islamic strongholds, Jokowi ran a classic machine-politics campaign. In 2014, he had leaned heavily on volunteers inspired by his reformist promises and his status as the alternative to Prabowo’s autocratic populism. In 2019, by contrast, Jokowi left most of the grassroots campaigning to the parties that had nominated him—for the first time, Indonesia was holding presidential and legislative elections on the same day, so these parties were already out in force on the hustings anyway. He also mobilized the state apparatus as no democratic-era incumbent had done before. In August 2018, he asked the military to promote his government’s achievements; the police continued to arrest people who spread “misinformation” about him; and his [End Page 111] team solicited pledges of support from 30 of 34 governors and 359 of 514 district heads. No other president since 1998 had sought so much backing from local leaders.

Prabowo initially tried a strategy of avoiding polarization—at least on the surface. He had lost in 2014 despite running with the full support of Islamist groups, so merely repeating that approach was unlikely to bring him success. When Islamists pushed him to copy the anti-Ahok mobilization by running a campaign even more geared toward Muslim groups than the 2014 effort had been, Prabowo at first resisted. He rejected several puritanical Muslim figures who were put forward as vice-presidential options, and instead insisted on the centrist entrepreneur Sandiaga Uno. A member of Prabowo’s party and at age 49 the youngest person on either ticket, the wealthy Sandiaga paid for much of the campaign. Apart from Islamist groups, Prabowo’s main backing came from four political parties, including former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s. In his speeches, Prabowo sounded typical populist themes. He decried elite corruption, state decay, and foreign interference. What Prabowo, who is not personally pious, did not do was emphasize Islamist demands.

If at the top the two nominees presented a façade of de-polarization, their grassroots supporters did no such thing. In fact, they drove the respective campaigns in opposing directions. Just how far this process advanced would become fully clear only when the voting numbers came in, but even weeks prior to election day the deepening of the religious cleavage was obvious. Jokowi found himself again smeared in Islamic strongholds as a communist, a Chinese puppet, and a foe of Islam. Many Jokowi supporters, meanwhile, charged that Prabowo wanted to liquidate Indonesia as a state and dissolve it into an Islamic caliphate. Each candidate had retained his base, but neither had succeeded in reaching beyond it.

In our travels in Indonesia during the campaign, signs of the widening split were easy to find. In Central and East Java provinces, both NU strongholds, officials from that group consistently described their support for Jokowi as a defense of pluralism against Islamist hard-liners. Such Islamists, these NU leaders insisted, were existential threats to the nation.22 Given that many NU kiai on Java had supported Prabowo in 2014, this shift in rhetoric constituted a significant sharpening of the pluralists-versus-Islamists cleavage. In the eastern part of the archipelago, Christian voters in the province of Maluku expressed similar attitudes. Speaking in tones of alarm, they expressed anxiety over their place in the Indonesian state should “Prabowo and his Islamist thugs” come to power. In Muslim neighborhoods, by contrast, voters echoed (false) rumors that Jokowi would ban Muslim prayer calls or legalize same-sex marriage—rumors that made him utterly unelectable in such communities.23

These grassroots dynamics eventually made depolarization untenable. [End Page 112] Until late in the campaign, some observers pointed to Ma’ruf’s nomination as evidence that “economic issues will be the focus.”24 But in an otherwise dull televised debate on March 30, Prabowo exposed the true fault line. He complained directly to Jokowi that the president’s allies were calling him a supporter of an Islamic caliphate. Jokowi, now also dropping the pretense that development policy was the campaign’s focus, responded that he was hearing himself denounced as a communist by Prabowo’s associates. After this brief but momentous exchange, both campaigns realized that it was futile to continue denying the cleavage; instead, they embraced it.

As a consequence, both nominees chose to hold their final mass rallies as symbolic homages to their core supporters. Unlike in 2014, when Prabowo had drawn a heterogeneous crowd to his final campaign speech, in 2019 he handed much of the organization of his last rally to activists from the 212 movement. They filled a Jakarta stadium with devout Muslims dressed in white prayer clothing. Habib Rizieq, the cleric who heads FPI, was beamed in from his Arabian exile to give a rousing speech on the big screen. Jokowi presided over a concert featuring tattooed rock stars and an audience ranging from ethnic Chinese to Muslim punks. With the divisions between the two constituencies displayed so openly, voters went to the polling stations with a clear (and probably oversimplified) idea of choosing between starkly different visions for the country. In contrast to 2014, however, these opposing visions no longer related to the state of democracy; rather, they pitched defenders of a pluralist Indonesia against those who wanted a stronger role for Islam.

The Results and Postelection Tensions

The election results highlighted the growing pluralist-Islamist cleavage even more compellingly than most pollsters and observers had predicted. Jokowi won with 55.5 percent, bettering his 2014 performance by 2.3 percentage points. But this small national-level gain masked massive shifts in the regions that followed a pattern: Jokowi increased his vote share in provinces with large non-Muslim and NU constituencies, while Prabowo’s support rose in Islamic strongholds outside Java. In other words, both Jokowi and Prabowo mostly held on to the provinces that they had won in 2014, but did so with much larger margins. For instance, Jokowi won the majority-Hindu province of Bali with 92 percent (up from 71 percent in 2014); the majority-Catholic East Nusa Tenggara Province with 89 percent (up from 66); and the mostly Protestant provinces of North Sulawesi (77 percent, up from 54), Papua (91 percent, up from 73), and West Papua (80 percent, up from 68). He also increased his vote share in the NU bastions of Central Java (77 percent, up from 67) and East Java (66 percent, up from 53). [End Page 113]

Similarly, Prabowo recorded large gains in devoutly Muslim Aceh (86 percent, up from 55), West Sumatra (86 percent, up from 77), and South Sulawesi (57 percent, up from 29).25 He also held on to his large margins in West Java and Banten. Combined, these two provinces constituted 21 percent of the national electorate, which is why Jokowi had hoped that Ma’ruf Amin would bring vote gains there. But the religious cleavage led to something like a repeat of the 2014 result, except with slight increases for Prabowo (by more than 4 percentage points in Banten and two-tenths of a percentage point in West Java).

Exit-polling data provide further insights into the trend of increasing religious division.26 As in 2014, Prabowo won the overall Muslim vote in 2019 by 51 to 49 percent. Yet Jokowi spectacularly increased his support among non-Muslim voters to 97 percent (up by roughly 10 percent). He also won NU voters by 56 to 44 percent; in 2014, they had split almost evenly. Thus, Jokowi gained among anti-Islamist NU voters, compensating for the losses that he suffered in Islamic strongholds on Sumatra and Sulawesi. He also recorded an overall rise by dramatically boosting his non-Muslim vote. Breaking down the numbers, Thomas Pepinsky concludes that the “evidence is consistent with a hardening of a religious cleavage across the country: Prabowo’s campaign appealed to Muslims, and Jokowi’s to non-Muslims.”27

In achieving his victory, Jokowi benefited from a massive campaign to increase turnout. Both pluralist leaders and government agencies took part. Mostly this campaign targeted pluralist voters who felt disappointed by the lack of democratic reform under Jokowi, and who therefore might be expected to stay home on election day. Those advocating participation reminded pluralist voters that abstaining would lead to a Prabowo government diametrically opposed to their interests. Franz Magnis-Suseno, a Jesuit priest and respected pluralist and prodemocracy figure, published an influential newspaper essay against nonvoting in which he called those bent on abstaining “stupid,” “mentally unstable,” and “psycho freaks.”28 Former president and PDI-P chairperson Megawati Sukarnoputri said abstainers were “cowards” who should give up their citizenship. Jokowi’s senior security minister, Wiranto, warned that people advocating abstention could be charged under the antiterrorism law. The campaign worked: Turnout went from 70 percent in 2014 to 79 percent in 2019, indicating that many pluralist voters put their doubts about Jokowi’s poor democratic record aside in order to keep Islamists away from power.

Prabowo responded to his loss in the same way that he had in 2014: He declared himself the winner, published implausible vote counts, and organized protests at key electoral institutions to obstruct the announcement of the final results. At one such protest, on May 21 and 22, Prabowo supporters began their demonstration peacefully, but things got out of hand and eight people died. It remains unclear who is responsible for these deaths, though evidence is increasingly pointing toward the police. Both Prabowo [End Page 114] and the government have in their respective camps authoritarian-era generals with records of involvement in murky episodes of politically motivated unrest, suggesting that multiple actors could have been at work. In May 1998, Prabowo and Wiranto had notoriously engaged in an intense power struggle associated with Jakarta street violence. It began with the death of four students and ended with the fall of Suharto.

While the 2019 violence was complex and confusing, many Jokowi supporters came out to thank the police for their service. Distributing flowers and food to tired officers, Jokowi’s people acted as if an Islamist attack on the state had been foiled.29 An “Arrest Prabowo” hashtag trended briefly on Twitter. The police later admitted that some officers had beaten unarmed protesters, but this admission did little to dampen support within pluralist circles for harsh government measures against Prabowo and his allies. The postelection violence led to rebellion charges against several Prabowo associates, but at the time of this writing in August 2019, authorities have yet to present strong evidence to back up their case.

Despite these illiberal patterns, Indonesia remains in the ranks of electoral democracies and is not slipping rapidly toward authoritarianism. The 2019 elections were highly competitive, and Prabowo’s strong result in many areas showed that Jokowi’s attempt to mobilize state agencies and local-government leaders on his behalf was much less effective than he hoped. Yet Jokowi’s 2019 victory should not be misread as a sign of solidifying democratic maturity. Instead, it reflects the increasing salience of contestation between religious pluralists and proponents of Islamization, overshadowing the previously important cleavage separating those for whom democracy was an overriding issue from those who felt indifferent or hostile to it. Even if cartel politics undergoes reform at the elite level—at the time of writing there is much speculation that Prabowo’s party, Gerindra, could join Jokowi’s coalition—the reactivated identity-based cleavage will likely remain a powerful resource to be mobilized in future elections.

Nondemocratic Pluralism: Indonesia and Beyond

The decline in salience of the democratic cleavage in the 2019 Indonesian elections was the latest turn in the rising and falling trajectory of that division in post-Suharto Indonesia. In 1999, the democracy cleavage was important. Back then, many voters saw PDI-P and several new parties, including Islamic ones, as oriented toward prodemocracy reforms; at the same time, voters still attached to the predemocratic order could find a home in Suharto’s regime party, Golkar. In the 2004 and 2009 presidential elections, the demarcation lines became blurred, as no candidate in either balloting offered a nondemocratic alternative to the status quo. Such an alternative only emerged in 2014, with Prabowo laying out a vision of neoauthoritarian strengthening of the executive and [End Page 115] populist mobilization of the masses. Since Prabowo had the backing of Islamist groups, the cleavage over democracy coincided with the cleavage over pluralism versus Islamism. Support for Jokowi broadly represented a vote for religious pluralism and for continuation of Indonesia’s democratic political arrangements, while backing Prabowo meant supporting a greater role for Islam and injecting an element of strongman rule into the political system.

As we have argued, support for pluralism subsequently parted ways with support for democracy as pluralism began to outweigh democracy as an issue. During his first term, Jokowi lost his status as a guardian of Indonesian democracy, having shown no interest in democratic reform and having used authoritarian methods to fend off Islamist opponents. For many pluralists, this behavior did not disqualify Jokowi from reelection. On the contrary, Jokowi became their symbol of resistance to the Islamist threat—resistance that they felt entitled to put up by whatever means seemed necessary.

By the time of the 2019 election, the pluralist-versus-Islamist cleavage was the key determinant of voting behavior on both sides. Voters who held both pluralist and staunchly prodemocratic views, and who thus considered abstaining, shrank to a small minority and came under attack from pluralists now exclusively interested in defending multiculturalism. The defense of democratic (as opposed to pluralist) rights was hardly mentioned during the campaign.

The Indonesian case, then, is a useful reminder that while protecting minority rights is crucial to any democratic project, cutting off the defense of such rights from advocacy of other liberal rights and freedoms can have an antidemocratic effect. In his work on the subject, Marc F. Plattner coined the term “radical pluralism”30 to describe excessive and potentially antidemocratic forms of political mobilization by minority groups that prioritize religious, ethnic, and cultural pluralism over other aspects of democracy. Advocates of nondemocratic pluralism often cloak their positions in the language of democracy, but they risk being as illiberal as the ideological opponents whom they seek to constrain, even if each of the two groups will end up being illiberal in its own distinct way.

This insight is freighted with implications for thinking about how the global democratic recession got started, and what can be done about it. There is no doubt that supporting minority rights is crucial in order to protect democracy and stem the rise of populists who mobilize against them. It is equally important, however, to bear in mind that history has had its fair share of pluralist autocrats who justified their grip on power by claiming that they were shielding minorities from Islamist or other majoritarian threats. Suharto was one such autocrat, but many Middle Eastern and North African countries too have seen authoritarian regimes cast themselves as champions of ethnoreligious pluralism. To be clear, [End Page 116] Jokowi’s Indonesia is not in this category yet: Democratic decline is happening only haltingly in the country. But the 2019 elections deepened divisions that could push the country more rapidly toward regression if the country’s democracy project is not broadened beyond the defense of sociocultural pluralism. [End Page 117]



1. See for example, Yascha Mounk, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).

2. Marc F. Plattner, “Populism, Pluralism, and Liberal Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 21 (January 2010): 90.

3. Marcus Mietzner, “Indonesia’s 2014 Elections: How Jokowi Won and Democracy Survived,” Journal of Democracy 25 (October 2014): 111–25; Edward Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner, “Indonesian Politics in 2014: Democracy’s Close Call,” Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies 50, no. 3 (2014): 347–69.

4. “Survei LSI: Publik Lebih Percaya Isu Negatif yang Menerpa Prabowo Dibanding Jokowi” [LSI Survey: The public believes the negative issues affecting Prabowo more than those affecting Jokowi], Berita Satu, 21 May 2014.

5. Jeffrey A. Winters, “Oligarchy and Democracy in Indonesia,” Indonesia 96 (October 2013): 11–33.

6. Eve Warburton, “Jokowi and the New Developmentalism,” Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies 52, no. 3 (2016): 297–320.

7. Burhanuddin Muhtadi, “Jokowi’s First Year: A Weak President Caught between Reform and Oligarchic Politics,” Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies 51, no. 3 (2015): 349–68.

8. The verse is 5:51, which in Mohsin Khan’s translation reads: “O you who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians as Auliya’ (friends, protectors, helpers, etc.), they are but Auliya’ to one another. And if any amongst you takes them as Auliya’, then surely he is one of them. Verily, Allah guides not those people who are the Zalimun (polytheists and wrongdoers and unjust).” See

9. On FPI, see for example Ian Wilson, “Morality Racketeering: Vigilantism and Populist Islamic Militancy in Indonesia,” in Khoo Boo Teik, Vedi R. Hadiz, and Yoshihiro Nakanishi, eds., Between Dissent and Power: The Transformation of Islamic Politics in the Middle East and Asia (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 248–74.

10. Eve Warburton and Liam Gammon, “Class Dismissed? Economic Fairness and Identity Politics in Indonesia,” New Mandala, 5 May 2017,

11. Jeremy Menchik, Islam and Democracy in Indonesia: Tolerance Without Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

12. Edward Aspinall et al., “Mapping the Indonesian Political Spectrum,” New Mandala, 24 April 2018,

13. Dan Slater, “Party Cartelization, Indonesian-Style: Presidential Power-Sharing and the Contingency of Democratic Opposition,” Journal of East Asian Studies 18 (March 2018): 23–46.

14. Michael Buehler, The Politics of Shari’a Law: Islamist Activists and the State in Democratizing Indonesia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

15. Marcus Mietzner, “Fighting Illiberalism with Illiberalism: Islamist Populism and Democratic Deconsolidation in Indonesia,” Pacific Affairs 91 (June 2018): 261–82.

16. See Thomas P. Power, “Jokowi’s Authoritarian Turn and Indonesia’s Democratic Decline,” Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies 54, no. 3 (2018): 307–38.

17. A poll in August 2017 showed that among the 73 percent of respondents who had heard about a new government regulation that allowed the executive to disband an organization without a court order, almost two-thirds agreed with this measure. Of these two-thirds, 60 percent endorsed its use against HTI. Non-Muslim respondents were significantly more likely to agree to both propositions. See Lembaga Survei Indonesia, “National Survey on Radicalism, Corruption, and Presidential Election,” August 2017.

18. Interview by Marcus Mietzner with organizers of the meeting, Jakarta, July 2017.

19. Robin Bush, Nahdlatul Ulama and the Struggle for Power Within Islam and Politics in Indonesia (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2009); Jeremy Menchik, “Moderate Muslims and Democratic Breakdown in Indonesia,” Asian Studies Review 43, no. 3 (1 July 2019): 415–33.

20. Azis Anwar Fachrudin, “Jokowi and NU: The View from the Pesantren,” New Mandala, 11 April 2019,

21. As an exit poll in the 2019 election would demonstrate, attacking Prabowo for being an authoritarian holdover was no longer effective. Of the 37 percent of respondents who believed that Prabowo would bring back Suharto’s regime, about half voted for him. Data provided to the authors by Burhanuddin Muhtadi, executive director of Indikator Politik Indonesia.

22. Edward Aspinall, “Indonesia’s Election and the Return of Ideological Competition,” New Mandala, 22 April 2019,

23. Marcus Mietzner, “Indonesia’s Elections in the Periphery: A View from Maluku,” New Mandala, 2 April 2019,

24. Norshahril Saat, “The Implications of a Ma’ruf Amin Vice-Presidency in Indonesia,” ISEAS Perspective, 4 March 2019.

25. In 2014, Jokowi had won South Sulawesi because his running mate, Jusuf Kalla, came from that province.

26. Indikator Politik Indonesia, “Exit Poll Pemilu 2019,” 17 April 2019.

27. Tom Pepinsky, “Religion, Ethnicity, and Indonesia’s 2019 Presidential Election,” New Mandala, 28 May 2019,

28. Franz Magnis-Suseno, “Golput” [Nonvoting], Kompas (Jakarta), 12 March 2019.

29. “Police Enjoy Public Support amid Riots,” Jakarta Post, 24 May 2019.

30. Plattner, “Populism, Pluralism, and Liberal Democracy,” 87.