Indonesia Is at a Crossroads - Its Future as a Pluralistic Democracy Hangs in the Balance

  • Print

A nation "at the crossroads" is a well-worn and overused phrase, but it is one that befits Indonesia today.

On 9 July, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, third largest democracy, fourth most populous nation and south-east Asia's largest economy will elect a new President. The two candidates, Prabowo Subianto and Joko Widodo (known as "Jokowi") represent a very clear and contrasting choice: between the past and the future, a return to authoritarianism or a deepening of democracy, and between the politicisation of religion and the protection and promotion of genuine religious pluralism.

 

Over the past fifteen years Indonesia has made a remarkable transition from dictatorship to democracy and chaos to stability. As the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, it has a great tradition of religious pluralism, enshrined in its founding state philosophy, the 'Pancasila'. Rising religious intolerance in the past ten years has put these achievements in jeopardy, and the failures of the incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have fuelled this, but the forthcoming election represents a crucial test. The choice presents an opportunity to say yes to pluralism, or to continue further down the road of intolerance.

Prabowo, an ex-General and the son-in-law of former dictator Suharto, has tried to conjure up the image of the nation's founding father, Sukarno during his campaign. This nationalist fervour has some appeal, as does his strongman image. One Indonesian taxi driver told me recently that he would vote for Prabowo, because he would stop terrorists. "Under Suharto, we had no terrorist problem. Now we have a lot of terrorists," he said. He is probably right - Prabowo may well deal toughly with terrorists, though one has to ask whether his own blood-stained hands the best ones to protect the country. His recent campaign music video evoking Nazi imagery, and his comments to journalist Allan Nairn about fascism offer a frightening preview of how he might conduct himself in office.

Prabowo is certainly no religious extremist. On the surface, his pluralist credentials are strong. His mother and brother are Christians, and his rhetorical defence of the 'Pancasila', Indonesia's founding state philosophy which protects religious diversity, harks back to the Suharto and Sukarno eras in which secular nationalism trumped Islamist extremism.

However, the coalition supporting him will not make it easy to protect Indonesia's tradition of pluralism and religious tolerance. Hardline Islamist political parties will want a share of power in exchange for the support they have provided, and doing a deal with the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) is more likely to empower and embolden them rather than rein them in. The FPI, a violent vigilante mob known for forcing the closure of churches and attacking the mosques of the Ahmadiyya, a Muslim sect labelled "heretical" by other Muslims, should be sidelined, not given a political platform.

Moreover, Prabowo's election manifesto pledged to "purify religion" - a chilling proposal which, despite his brother Hashim Djojohadikusomo's claims of withdrawal, should serve as a warning of what may follow. His camp's continuous dirty tricks campaign against his opponent, which includes questioning Jokowi's Islamic faith and Javanese ethnicity, shows that Prabowo cares more about winning than he does about protecting what Indonesia stands for.

In addition to support from hardline Islamists, Prabowo has surprisingly won support from some Christian groups. While the Catholic Church and the mainline Communion of Churches of Indonesia (PGI) have carefully stayed neutral, though privately express concerns about Prabowo, the Pentecostal Church declared its support for him. This is unusual in itself, for churches rarely make a collective decision in an election, and are better advised to allow their adherents the freedom to make their own choices. But it is even more surprising, given the Islamist nature of Prabowo's bedfellows. He has built an unholy alliance of religious extremists, bringing together radical Islamists with fundamentalist Christians - a marriage made in hell, leaving moderates and pluralists from all religions on the sidelines.

As if these were not enough to cause concern, persistent allegations of grave human rights violations perpetrated by Prabowo while in the military should give Indonesians pause for thought. That his "excesses" have even been criticised by other Generals, themselves no paragons of virtue, is revealing. Claims by his former superiors that Prabowo acted alone in arranging the kidnapping of activists in the Suharto era and was discharged from the military for acting without orders should concern everyone.

Jokowi, on the other hand, has a proven record as Governor of Jakarta and previously Mayor of Solo for defending pluralism. Churches in Jakarta which faced threats from the FPI received police protection from the Governor. Jokowi dismissed those protesting against the appointment of a Christian as a sub-district head, saying people should be appointed on merit alone. Indeed, his own Vice-Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok), is a Chinese Christian, making the pair a symbol of the Pancasila. Reports that he would scrap the religion column on identity cards have been denied by his camp, but it is likely that the denial comes from a concern to shore up his Islamic credentials, under fire from Prabowo's dirty tricks.

Jokowi's coalition is not perfect. Among his supporters is General Wiranto, famous for singing karaoke in 1999 while East Timor burned. A few Islamic parties have gone Jokowi's way too. But overall, he himself has no ties to the military, faces no human rights charges and is not beholden to hardline Islamists - three characteristics that distinguish him from his opponent.

Many have drawn comparisons between Jokowi and Obama. Like Obama he has risen fast, coming to national attention only two years ago upon election as Governor of Jakarta. Like Obama, he represents change, his background is in local community politics and he inspires a hope among his supporters that is unparalleled. He even bears a physical resemblance to the US President, and has chosen as his running mate the experienced former Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, who may perhaps be to Jokowi what Joseph Biden is to Obama, matching youth and vision with age and experience.

The election feels similar to Obama-McCain in 2008. To compare Prabowo to John McCain would be stretching the analogy way too far. It would also be a gross insult to Senator McCain, a distinguished war veteran with an exemplary record for speaking up for human rights. But there are some similarities. The military link is one. The decision to rope in hardline conservative elements to shore up the base is another, at the expense of the candidate's own beliefs. The Islamist parties and the FPI could be to Prabowo what Sarah Palin and the Tea Party were to McCain. In addition, both men are well known for having fiery, even uncontrollable tempers.

It is not for me, as a foreigner, to tell Indonesians how to vote on 9 July. The choice of President is one for the people of Indonesia to make. But, if I were an Indonesian, it's clear where my sympathies would lie. And it is legitimate to urge Indonesians to ask some tough questions. Do they want to look to the future, or hark back to a by-gone era of authoritarianism? Do they want to strengthen Indonesia's democracy, or undermine it? Do they wish to defend Indonesia's tradition of pluralism and tackle intolerance, or give the voices of intolerance a stronger platform in government? And is a man with blood on his hands and radical Islamists at his side, widely described even by his friends as "psychologically flawed" and a "megalomaniac", best placed to take Indonesia forward? On these questions hang Indonesia's fate. Its future hangs in the balance.