Indonesia's Growing Islamist Populism

Dec 21, 2016

November and December 2016 saw mass demonstrations in Jakarta, the largest protests in Indonesia's history. The demonstrators demanded that the city governor, an ethnic Chinese and a Christian, be prosecuted and then arrested for blasphemy against Islam. What are the forces behind these confrontations and what will be the consequences?

DEVIN STEWART: I'm Devin Stewart at Carnegie Council in New York City, and I'm sitting here with Marcus Mietzner. He is a professor at Australian National University.

Great to have you here today, Marcus.

MARCUS MIETZNER: Thank you for having me.

DEVIN STEWART: You are in New York City this week talking about the general situation in Indonesian politics. Can you give us a sense of the state of Indonesian politics today and where it is headed as we move toward the 2019 elections?

MARCUS MIETZNER: Yes. There are two rather contradictory trends that we have seen in Indonesian politics this year. On the one hand, President Jokowi [Joko Widodo] has consolidated power after what was widely considered a disastrous first year in office. He became president in October 2014. He struggled really heavily in the first year. He was isolated from his own political party. He had a minority government, only 37 percent support in Parliament. He had one scandal after another.

But then, in his second year he settled into the presidency and he turned the 37 percent minority in Parliament into a 69 percent supermajority. He did that by coercing some of the political parties into supporting him by intervening in their internal affairs. By the end of 2015, the parties that previously opposed him were now supporting him. That led to a consolidation in his power over elite politics. So he was now in control of Parliament, he was in control of political parties, he was in control of the formal state structure through which elite politics is channeled.

However, since around September/October, we have seen an additional development, and that was the reintroduction of popular mobilization as an instrument of power play in Indonesia. That is something we really have not seen since 1998, when longtime dictator Suharto fell. Since then, the focus of Indonesian political analysis has been on the state institutions—who is controlling the Parliament; who is controlling the parties; who is winning elections; who is controlling the oligarchy. All of that was important so far, and we have neglected in that analysis what is happening in terms of popular mobilization.

However, we have since September seen events that led to two major mobilizations of popular support for Islamist forces. There was one demonstration, on the 4th of November, which was extremely large, which demanded that the Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta be prosecuted for blasphemy. And then, one month later, on the 2nd of December, we saw an even larger demonstration that asked for that very governor not only to be prosecuted but to be arrested for those blasphemy charges. Those two demonstrations were the largest demonstrations in Indonesian history, and that now shows that popular mobilization has made a reentry into Indonesian politics and has put a lot of pressure on Jokowi because he has not found a way of countering those mobilizations.

Now, it is important to understand that the Christian Chinese governor of Jakarta is an ally of Jokowi, and therefore these demonstrations can be seen as directed against the president. And again, the president has not found solutions of how to deal with these popular mobilizations. He has tried to counter these mobilizations, he has tried to accommodate the leaders, he has tried to arrest some of these leaders, but nothing has worked. So that's where we are at the moment: a president who is firmly in control of the elite institutions looks at the moment rather helpless in trying to get a grip on this new form of popular mobilization against him.

DEVIN STEWART: What happened with the blasphemy charges? Where do they stand?

MARCUS MIETZNER: The first demonstration was about initiating a legal process against the government. That hadn't happened at that time because President Jokowi was protecting this governor, who was his former deputy when he himself was governor of Jakarta between 2012 and 2014. After the 4th of November demonstration, the pressure became so great on the government to initiate a legal process, and that has since happened. He was declared a suspect and he was put on trial.

The 2nd of December demonstration, again the one that was even larger, then demanded that not only he be declared a suspect and put on trial but immediately arrested. Now, the government has tried to resist that particular demand, so the governor is still not arrested. The trial started on the 13th of December and is expected to last for several months.

It is important to understand that all this is happening as the governor is campaigning for reelection in the election for Jakarta governor in February of 2017.

DEVIN STEWART: What is the punishment for blasphemy in Indonesia?

MARCUS MIETZNER: Well, it can range from several months in prison to many years, in fact. That is part of the uncertainty that we have now. There have been many cases of blasphemy charges since 1965, when the blasphemy law was established, and very few acquittals.

The political relevance of all of this is that even if the governor should win reelection, it is possible that, if even a light sentence is imposed on him, he will be a convict and therefore not eligible to take up office. So we are in this very interesting situation now where a potential conviction of the governor might mean that even if he wins he will not be able to take up office.

We are also in a situation where it will be very interesting to see how the Islamists, who are pushing for his conviction, will react if, for instance, his popularity goes down. If he no longer is competitive in the electoral race, it might be that then they just let the case go. So that personally for the governor it would advantageous not to be competitive in the race anymore. The public would lose interest, the pressure would decline, and it would be possible therefore that the judges will not declare him guilty.

If, however, he remains strong electorally, if he is very likely to win, then the pressure will remain high. The pressure will be very high on the judges to come up with a conviction rather than letting him go. So this is what everybody is focusing on now.

What are his poll numbers? His poll numbers seem to be improving at the moment. They first collapsed after he was declared a suspect. Now they seem to be improving, which again is a double-edged sword for him, because personally that means that the Islamists are very likely to continue and even intensify the campaign, but electorally it could mean for him that he has still a winning chance.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there any movement at all to take blasphemy out of the legal system?

MARCUS MIETZNER: Yes. Several cases have been launched in the last few years at the Constitutional Court saying that the blasphemy law is unconstitutional. All of these attempts have been thrown out by the Constitutional Court, saying that Indonesia is not a secular state, it is a multi-religious state, and therefore religions, not only the Islamic religion but all religions, need to be protected from blasphemy.

DEVIN STEWART: These popular mobilizations that you are talking about, do you think they are connected to growing populism worldwide? Do they share similar causes?

MARCUS MIETZNER: I think there are two different issues. The initial trigger for these particular popular mobilizations was the strength of Jokowi as president and his consolidation in the last year or so because that has driven his remaining opponents outside of the institutions. They now understood he was in control of Parliament, he was in control of the majority of the political parties, he was the front-runner for 2019, and therefore his remaining opponents needed to find a new avenue of damaging him and making sure that he was not a shoo-in for 2019. They came up with this strategy of popular mobilization.

Then they were thinking about "What's the best issue to mobilize around?" It is very difficult to mobilize Indonesians around, for instance, economic issues at this point. Most Indonesians are satisfied with their economic condition. There are very few other issues you can mobilize them around. The environment, tax, whatever—very few people would be prepared to go onto the street for those kinds of topics. So what they settled on was religious and ethnic sectarianism. This is where the Indonesian case connects to the global context, because what you have in Indonesia is very similar to what you see in the United States in terms of taboos falling—racial taboos, religious taboos. Where previously it was unthinkable to call Mexicans "rapists" or Muslims "terrorists," this is now part of the standard menu in the United States, as it is in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world, Australia as well.

In Indonesia we see a very similar development, where the ethnic Chinese have been largely protected from discrimination since the downfall of Suharto in 1998. They have had a very good run since then. They have made inroads into politics, the economy, culturally as well. They were able to speak their language again, there have been Chinese publications, the Chinese New Year was instituted as a national holiday, and so on. But this now is coming to an end and it is now socially acceptable again to openly discriminate, racially discriminate, against the ethnic Chinese. That is where the popular mobilization against the Christian Chinese governor is connecting (a) with the political contestation over 2019 and (b) with the global context as well.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting. So the Chinese are a kind of a scapegoat?


DEVIN STEWART: What is the percentage of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia?

MARCUS MIETZNER: There are no official figures, but it is roughly around 5, 6, maybe 7 percent.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you see this sort of trend, this movement, of a growing—I want to call it an Islamist populist movement.


DEVIN STEWART: Is this going to become a bigger force in Indonesia or is it going to kind of fizzle out? What do you think is going to happen?

MARCUS MIETZNER: I think it will become a larger political force because what these demonstrations have done is they have shown the power of political groups that were previously considered marginal to Indonesian elite politics.

There is one group in particular, the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam/FPI), which has always been around since 1998, but it was seen as a splinter group; it was seen as a group that was only active at the very Islamist margins. They have now proven that they can mobilize numbers of people that was unprecedented in Indonesian history. Again, the demonstration on the 2nd of December probably had around 750,000 people on the streets of Jakarta. That is larger than any demonstration we have seen, including in the 1950s and 1960s. So that has catapulted the leader of this particular group, Habib Muhammad Rizieq Syihab, into the center of Indonesian politics.

That is new, and that is what the president is struggling with at the moment. So on the day of the demonstration, on the 2nd of December, the president didn't know what to do. These 750,000 people were in front of the palace. Finally, he decided to actually join the demonstration, which was clearly directed against him. Don't forget they were demanding the arrest of his former deputy, who was a personal friend and who was a political protégé. But he decided that the pressure was so strong that the only option he had left was trying to appease the demonstrators, was trying to accommodate the demonstrators.

So what he did was walk out of the palace and join the demonstration at the time of the Friday prayer which was held by this very leader of the Islamic Defenders Front, and there the president sat and listened to a Friday prayer by a man who said to him at that particular occasion that Islamic jurisprudence, Islamic scripture, takes precedence over the Indonesian constitution. That was unprecedented in Indonesian history. The Indonesian president's primary task is of course to protect the constitution, but here he was told by the leader of the Islamist movement that the constitution is only valid if it does not clash with Islamic law. That was extraordinary.

DEVIN STEWART: How much appeal does this type of movement have to the average Indonesian? What are we talking about here in terms of popular support, do you think?

MARCUS MIETZNER: That is the most difficult question here because a lot of demonstrators who participated in these events would say that they are not part of the Islamic Defenders Front, that they are rejecting their attempts to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state, but yet they participated in those demonstrations. So the question needs to be asked: Why is that?

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have any theories?

MARCUS MIETZNER: My sense is that deep-seated racial and religious sentiments were able to be mobilized by a case that allowed ordinary Indonesians to justify towards themselves and towards the outside world these very sentiments.

Previously, when the Islamic Defenders Front—and they have done this many times—said, "A non-Muslim should not be governor of Jakarta," and when those demonstrations were held, very few Indonesians participated because they viewed this as unsophisticated, they viewed this for themselves as an unacceptable reason to demonstrate. But once the Islamic Defenders Front says, "This is no longer about whether a non-Muslim should or cannot be governor of Jakarta; this is about blasphemy, this is an attack on our religion, this is about law enforcement"—because the president was accused of protecting his friend from legal prosecution—suddenly there was a narrative, there was a case, that allowed Indonesians who for a very long time had these sentiments but felt they were unsophisticated, now to channel them in a different way, in a more palatable way.

So if you ask people who were on the streets, "Do you agree with the agenda of the Islamic Defenders Front?" they say, "No, I have nothing to do with that. The reason I am here is for law enforcement and to defend my religion."

But again, this is only a very convenient way for them to cloak these anti-Chinese sentiments in a much more sophisticated and intellectual way, because at the end of the day the message of the demonstration was: "We want the Christian Chinese governor of Jakarta to be arrested on trumped-up blasphemy charges." That was what everybody could agree on and that's what we need to focus on. Everything else, what some of the participants said—"We are only here to have a mass prayer; we are only here to defend our religion"—I believe were ways of rationalizing again what are very deep-seated sentiments in the first place.

DEVIN STEWART: Fascinating, Marcus.

I just recently wrote a piece with Jeff Wasserstrom about rising populism in East Asia. We looked at Japan and China. And I would say South Korea's anti-corruption movement was another example, and now you are telling me about Indonesia.

As the concluding question here, what are we to make of these democratically supported populist movements around Asia and the world? What do you see as the endgame here? Are we risking armed conflict? What do you see for the coming years?

MARCUS MIETZNER: First, I think it is very important to distinguish the types of populisms we are seeing here. If you look at the literature on Indonesia, there have been many authors who have predicted the rise of, in fact ironically, a leftist populism for some time, that eventually underprivileged laborers would rise in Indonesia and get rid of the capitalist system. Now we are seeing, however, populism coming from the other corner, and that's—

DEVIN STEWART: Right. Duterte is an example of a leftist sort in the Philippines. Some people call him that.

MARCUS MIETZNER: Well, he is portraying himself as a leftist, but I would actually dispute that.

In the Indonesian case, it is also very interesting because the incumbent president, Jokowi, also ran on a populist platform in 2014, on a moderate sort of technocratic populist platform but nevertheless a populist platform.

DEVIN STEWART: In which sense?

MARCUS MIETZNER: Presenting himself as an ordinary citizen who was not part of the elite, who would take alternative avenues of politics, who would not destroy the elite but clearly operate outside of it.

It is also interesting to remember that in the 2014 election he defeated another populist, a right-wing Duterte-style populist, a former Suharto son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto.

So the populist angle to Indonesian politics is not a new one. What is new is that, apparently, the strongest element of populism is now coming from the corner of the Islamist right, and that is something we didn't predict in 2014.

One of the interesting lessons for Jokowi here is that because he failed in 2014 to institutionalize his popular and populist support base, he had the option of forming his own party. He deliberately did not want to do that. He thought he would be fine without his own political party, his own populist organization. And now that we are in this situation, he feels that he has no instrument for counter-mobilization.

On the day of the first demonstration, the 4th of November, according to his aides, he was desperate. He didn't know why this was happening, and he was asking: "Why is no one supporting me? Why is no one going to the streets to assist me?" The answer is because he did not institutionalize that populist support that he had in 2014.

This is now two years ago. People have moved on to all kinds of other institutional arrangements. But had Jokowi institutionalized, like Erdoğan did, for instance, in Turkey—remember when the coup against Erdoğan happened, all he had to do was appear on television and say, "Come out, defend me," which they did, and the coup failed because of that.

Jokowi did not have that option. So what he is dealing with now—coming back to your question of where are we going from here—we are dealing with a completely new situation in which the Islamist right is now in charge of the populist label. They have the organizational capacity that Jokowi does not have with his own populist movement, and they are now using that leverage over Indonesian elite politicians.

So far, nobody has an answer as to where we are going from here, because the way this looks is that the election for the Jakarta governor will be in February. It is likely that there will be a second round in April. So we are looking at at least five months of continued instability where the trial against the governor is running parallel to his campaign for reelection, where the Islamist populist movement continues to demand his arrest, where they will watch every single step of the way of the trial. And, god beware, if there is an acquittal, they will mobilize again, and we don't know what happens then.

So the options for the government and other elite actors are very limited. You know, "Are we taking on, are we confronting, these Islamists, knowing that they could mobilize another 750,000 people on the streets; knowing also that in fact a lot of the Islamists would love nothing more than being arrested and being repressed because that would add to their narrative of being discriminated by a secular regime?"

So it is very dilemmatic. If you accommodate them, as Jokowi has chosen to do on the 2nd of December, you open yourself up to accusations that you are legitimizing the Islamist right, and those are the accusations that are being launched against Jokowi now; or are you confronting them, with the risk of further popular mobilization against you, with potential repercussions for your reelection? This is the dilemma Jokowi is in, and at the moment he has no idea how to solve it.

DEVIN STEWART: Marcus, thank you so much for a very clear and very interesting discussion today. Thank you.

MARCUS MIETZNER: Thank you very much.

You may also like

CREDIT: <a href="">CIA - The World Factbook</a>

SEP 28, 2012 Article

Indonesia's Lessons for the Middle East and North Africa and other Emerging Democracies

Over the past decade, Indonesia has accomplished one of the most successful processes of democratization among developing countries. What were the critical decisions that made ...

The Act of Killing

AUG 26, 2013 Article

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "The Act of Killing"

It is not hyperbole to call this documentary an epochal film. It brings viewers into the minds of mass murderers, illuminates a horrific piece of ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation