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

So what can realistically be done to prevent this from happening? Most importantly, while skilled technocrats are needed in key positions in government, what can be done to build a strong emotional appeal to voters and the public in general?

American economist William Easterly made this point in his December 2016 article, “Democracy Is Dying as Technocrats Watch,” in Foreign Policy magazine. Referring to the recent elections in the United States, he deplored the technocrats’ inability to stand up to populists who undermine freedom. To him, Hillary Clinton’s technocratic campaign against Donald Trump was a good case in point, with her “bullet point plans to solve 41 different measurable problems, each one containing multiple subplans to solve multiple subproblems.” In the end, the more populist candidate won because “the long reign of technocracy has deprived us of the moral weapons needed to defend the core values that are the foundation of democracy,” Easterly wrote.

The more emotional appeal requires a modern and effective communication strategy that highlights benefits of policies for target audiences, rather than listing their technical features. For instance, the Indonesian government’s tax amnesty program had collected revenues of about $7 billion by October 2016 and a further $1 billion by the end of last year. Highlighting these numbers pleases technocratic insiders but does not speak to the public. A more effective communication strategy would have spelled out the specific benefits of, for example, additional investments in health care and education. The same applies to infrastructure development, electric power generation and improvements in investment opportunities.

These are all key targets of the Joko administration and have achieved some levels of success, but the specific benefits for citizens have not been effectively communicated. If only populist authoritarian leaders speak a language that people understand, then it will not be a surprise when well-intentioned and better-skilled technocrats lose the fight for freedom and democracy. Meanwhile, the Indonesian government needs to actively defend democracy against the two main protagonists of populist authoritarianism: political Islamists and parts of the military that portray themselves as better suited to solve domestic problems than civilian leaders.

Political Islamists had their days of glory in the Jakarta gubernatorial campaign because their interests were aligned with those of key power players preparing for the 2019 national elections. The FPI was once an organization of violent thugs at the margin of society, but it became the leading voice of the political opposition to Joko and Basuki. Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s main mass Islamic organizations, have not been able to prevent this, and both need to reclaim lost positions within their constituencies. Nahdlatul Ulama in particular needs to regain its internal unity, and Joko’s government should prioritize supporting this.

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