Indonesia's Achilles' heel: Populist authoritarianism
April-June 2017
By: Rainer Heufers

It is well understood that those who experience an erosion of power blame external influences that undermine the paternalist values of their culture and religion. In Europe and the United States, this sense of deprivation has led to the populist resistance of mostly white men who subscribe to a new nationalism and call for the primacy of sovereignty and territorial integrity. In Indonesia, it was arguably this same discontent that brought hundreds of thousands of Indonesians out to demonstrate against Basuki, all of them for different reasons but all guided by feelings of powerlessness. Populists managed to feast on these feelings.

The threat in Indonesia

Prabowo Subianto, Gatot Nurmantyo and Habib Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the FPI, claim to defend Indonesia from alien attacks on its national culture, sovereignty and morale. Prabowo rallied his party members in early January, claiming that the nation and its leaders could be bought off. At the same time, military chief Gatot made the bold decision – uncoordinated with the national leadership – to break off military cooperation with Australia after an alleged insult to the Indonesian nation. Meanwhile, the FPI’s entire legitimacy is built on the paternalistic notion that Islam and morality in Indonesia are under siege from foreign, Christian or heterodox influences. They claim to uphold morality by raiding bars and nightclubs.

Prabowo, Gatot and Rizieq have several things in common. They evoke the fear of losing a particular identity through the interference of others, and they claim to defend that identity, which consists largely of paternalistic norms and rejects modern ways of life. More important, their populism is not just about denouncing the rule of a despised elite – it is authoritarian at the core. Prabowo himself has been accused of human rights abuses during his military career, and he was found responsible for the kidnapping of anti-Soeharto activists. Many observers believe he plotted to take over the country when Soeharto resigned in 1998. Using aggressive and strongly xenophobic rhetoric during his presidential election campaign in 2014, Prabowo still portrays himself as the strongman who will fight Indonesia’s alleged enemies.

Gatot’s frequent reference to “proxy wars” instigated by foreign powers to access Indonesian resources and its society strongly implies that he wants the Army involved in domestic affairs. Around 50,000 village defense officers have been placed in villages around the country to clear 200,000 hectares of land for rice cultivation. Moreover, the “Defend the Nation” (Bela Negara) program provides civilians with military training and ideological indoctrination, and it plans to “disseminate the values of state defense in educational, workplace and neighborhood environments.” Such programs evoke memories of the New Order period, when the role of the Army in internal matters was a key component of the authoritarian regime.

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