The Indonesian general election, held in April, this year, saw another head-on collision between Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) and the opposition candidate, Prabowo Subianto. Once again, the parties in the ‘Working Indonesia’ coalition of Jokowi won 55.5% of the votes compared to 44.5% for the ‘Justice and Prosperity’ coalition of Prabowo. There was a more than 154 million voter turnout, which is 82% of the electorate and a 10% increase over 2014.

Jokowi, captured well over half the seats in Indonesia’s 560-member Lower House, known as the People’s Representative Council (DPR) with an increased use of religious ‘identity politics’ in the name of countering the religious conservatism of Prabowo. The majority of voters backed Jokowi who is seen as the ‘lesser evil’ compared to Prabowo, who still carries the past of new order era. With no political alternative in Indonesia that is able to unite the working class, poor masses and young people, the hegemony of right-wing political parties remains. They continue to divide society and to play on the genuine hopes and needs of the masses for a better future.  

Second term

This will be Jokowi’s second and last term in office, given Indonesia’s two-term presidency limit, introduced after the bitter experience of dictatorship under Suharto which lasted for 32 years until it was ended by an uprising from the masses in 1998.

Although Jokowi got a comfortable victory and saw an increase of 15 million votes over 2014, Prabowo also managed to increase his votes - by 6 million - and in general relies on the more conservative sections of society. Prabowo alleged massive and systemic fraud in the election but as expected, the Constitutional Court has ruled against Prabowo’s attempt to nullify the election results. It was clear that both candidates played enormously on racial and religious sentiment in order to gain votes.

The results showed an increasing polarisation among the population between the ‘pluralists’ (tolerant of a multi-religious and multi-racial society) and Islamists. Jokowi gained support in non-Muslim majority areas, such as Bali, East Nusa Tenggara, Papua and North Sulawesi, and the ethnically Javanese-dominated provinces of Central Java, Yogyakarta and East Java. Prabowo, meanwhile, gained support in majority Muslim areas and won a majority of votes in several provinces that Jokowi won in 2014, such as South Sulawesi, Southeast Sulawesi, Bengkulu and Jambi.

Since winning the 2014 Presidential election as the ‘people's candidate’ with an agenda for ‘new hope’, Jokowi has carried out a pro-market agenda and neo-liberal policies. One of the first tasks undertaken by Jokowi on taking office back in 2014 was to reduce government subsidies for fuel which was massively unpopular and provoked mass protests throughout the country. In the 2014 elections, the masses voted for Jokowi who was seen as a politician without a link to the Suharto regime or the ‘new order’ era. On the one hand, Jokowi played with promises of reforms and democratic rights. On the other, he has been meticulously working with many of the allies of ex-dictator Suharto and with the generals and has taken some into his cabinet.   

Growing religious conservatism

Throughout the election campaign and before that, Prabowo tried to paint Jokowi as an anti-Islamist and a liberal, encroaching on the rights of the Muslim majority who make up nearly 90% of the population. The country is officially secular and is home to sizeable Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and other minorities. In December 2016, when a Chinese Christian and an ally of Jokowi, known as Ahok, ran as governor for Jakarta, Prabowo’s main supporters - the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) - and others ramped up the religious propaganda on the streets and provoked protests from the Jakarta population to bring him down, prosecuted and finally jailed for blasphemy. Ahok was labelled as anti-Islamist and Muslims who supported him were given stern warnings that they will end up in hell! Since then, Prabowo and his allies have been using religious conservatism to their advantage in the context of an increasing polarisation in Indonesian society due to growing economic inequality

Both presidential candidates tried to distract the masses away from important issues such as a minimum wage, education, job security, housing and other pressing issues in society. Unable to offer solutions, Jokowi reacted to the Prabowo attack by shifting himself and his party towards religious conservatism by gaining endorsements from well known Islamic parties and forces. Jokowi chose the supreme leader of the largest Muslim organisation in the country, Ma’ruf Amin from Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), as his running mate and managed to split the Islamic vote. This move to certain extent increased Jokowi support in populous areas in Central and East Java where NU has a strong presence.

Once again, in this year’s election, Jokowi campaigned against Prabowo’s obvious link to the dictator Suharto. He is his former son-in-law and was a general under him. Jokowi criticised Prabowo’s Gerindra Party for cooperating with the Berkarya Party, which is headed by the former dictator’s son Tommy Suharto. But, at the same time, Jokowi has been part of a coalition with Golkar, the party once led by Suharto.

Increased investment with China

The generally well-to-do Chinese minority and their businesses have been the target of right-wing conservatism in Indonesian electoral politics for many years. While ramping up religious tensions, Prabowo’s camp also took aim at the China-Indonesia trade relationship which has grown closer under the leadership of Jokowi. In the USA-China trade war, team Prabowo seemed to have aligned itself with Trump and were hoping to be in closer alliance with the USA after gaining the presidential victory. This was revealed in a leaked minute of Prabowo’s strategy session with military generals who were arranging plans to stage a mass arrest of political opponents, and to drop the lawsuit hanging over Freeport-McMoran (a leading international mining company) in order to please the USA if they won. In reality, this was a plan to return to military “New Order” rule. This leaked minute also played a part in the decrease in Prabowo’s support and benefitted Jokowi greatly.      

During Jokowi’s first term, the Indonesian economy saw an average GDP increase of 5%. A total of 10 airports and 19 harbours were built and about 300 billion $US were invested in various infrastructure projects which led to the opening of Indonesia’s first subway line this year. Most of the financing for these massive infrastructure projects is achieved through private means and China is rapidly becoming one of the main foreign investors. Just two days after the presidential election, and even before the ballots were fully counted, Jokowi signed 23 memorandums of understanding with China worth 14.2 billion $US for several infrastructure projects. Indonesia is a key country now for China in order to fulfil their global ambition of completing the Belt and Road Initiative, starting with the controversial Jakarta-Bandung high speed railway. 

However, these massive infrastructure projects and foreign investment have increased the wealth of the millionaire class and the top elite of the country. It did not manage to satisfy the vast majority of the population who are still living in absolute poverty.  Oxfam reports that the wealth gap in Indonesia has grown faster than in any other country in the region and its four richest individuals are now wealthier than the 100 million poorest Indonesians. The heavy foreign borrowing trend has also increased Indonesian public debt by 7% to 383 billion $US and resulted in a large current account deficit which increases its dependency on foreign investments. In all, Indonesian debt has increased by 48% since Jokowi took office 5 years ago and is projected to keep increasing indefinitely. The country’s debt problems have been the main talking point against Jokowi by Prabowo who has leant on a protectionist economic programme attractive to nationalist capitalists.

Failure of Golput (election boycott)

Although Jokowi managed a comfortable presidential victory, his shift towards right-wing politics has meant that much of the progressive support which he enjoyed in 2014 has been lost. Some of the left leaning forces in Indonesia, including youth activists and some trade unions, rejected Jokowi and opted to campaign for an election boycott (Golput) due to the lack of genuine alternatives for the people. However, this strategy backfired and failed to make any impact among the masses. Judging from the high voter turnout of 82% in the election, the Golput movement had one of its worst results, exposing the weakness of their tactics which offer no solutions to the mass of the population. 

The organised labour forces in Indonesia experienced a level of repression under Jokowi’s government that had not been seen since Suharto’s era. Jokowi stood against the trade unions in almost every struggle. Even the trade unions which endorsed him were at loggerheads with the government numerous times. However, fearing the prospect of Prabowo, the former general, being in control, two of the main trade union federations - KSBSI and KSPSI – gave their support to Jokowi while KSPI, led by Said Iqbal, went with Prabowo.

The lack of a lead from the trade union leaders, who are unable to build an alternative to the mainstream capitalist candidates, is causing growing disillusionment in them by the rank and file working class. Although talk of establishing a mass workers’ party has been going on for a few years now, the leaders are not moving an inch in that direction and continue their support for one or other of the establishment candidates. Rank and file organised labour should challenge their impotent leaderships which have failed them repeatedly and are not ready to struggle for a political alternative.

Build a mass party of workers, with a socialist programme

With the presidency and with a comfortable majority in the People's Representative Council, Jokowi is expected to continue in the trajectory of increasing spending on infrastructure projects and market liberalisation. Jokowi will be looking to capitalise on the ongoing trade war between the USA and China by trying to please both sides to secure economic growth for Indonesia. However, the stability of the new government is questionable and dependent on the health of the global economy which has not recovered fully since the 2007/8 financial crisis. The slowing down of China’s economy, the increasing tensions between rival countries and any kind of economic shock will expose the flimsy foundation on which the Indonesian economy is being built.

With deepening discontent and increasing wealth disparities, Prabowo and his conservative political forces will go all out for ‘Islamic solutions’ as the alternative to Jokowi’s market liberalism. But, in reality, Prabowo and his gang, including the Islamic political parties, have no alternative and very much associate themselves to market forces by promoting market protectionism. This is not a solution to fulfil the hopes and needs of the working people and poor masses. 

Twenty one years after the pro-democracy mass protests that overthrew the Suharto regime, poverty and discrimination are still widespread in many parts of Indonesia, even though many promises were made and hopes rose for improvements in living conditions by various ruling parties when they were in government. Only a socialist programme, unifying economic and social demands such as a higher minimum wage, free education, an increase in social welfare and such things could overcome the division in society created by the demagoguery of the right and the failure of the left.

The left and trade union activists should move on from their ‘election boycott’ campaign and start constructing a mass working class alternative to the numerous capitalist forces presented in the elections time and again. To fulfil the needs and hopes of the mass of the population for real change, an independent mass party of the working class, poor farmers/rural poor and young people is needed – a party which fights for socialism as the only alternative to the conservatism and exploitation of capitalism.

  • Fight right wing conservatism and capitalism by building a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme!
  • For a government of workers with the support of poor farmers, young people and other oppressed in society!

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