Representative democracies are particularly vulnerable to political populism. They incentivize political leaders to justify their pursuit of power by claiming to defend the interests of ordinary people against those of the elite. The other critical success factor lies in the electoral strength of political parties, but in Indonesia the parties were overpowered by the candidates’ popularity after the introduction of direct executive elections for village heads, mayors, district chiefs, governors and the president.
Local elections for the governor of Jakarta are a good example of the increased importance of a candidate’s popularity and the resulting effectiveness of political populism. During the Indonesian capital’s first direct gubernatorial election, in 2007, the joint electoral machinery of 19 political parties backing Fauzi Bowo defeated a candidate backed only by the Islamic-based Prosperous Justice Party. The success of this coalition depended mostly on the combined outreach and mobilization capacities of the parties. What was absent during the 2007 election was social media, which was still in its nascent phase and hadn’t yet taken center stage in elections. The 2007 election was decided more by the strength of the parties than by their front-running candidates.
By the time of the next Jakarta gubernatorial election, in 2012, the number of Indonesians with private Internet connections had nearly tripled, from 13 million to 36 million. Facebook alone had 40 million Indonesian customers, many of them based in Jakarta – which was also named the world’s most active Twitter city that same year. The electorate’s despair of the political elite in the capital, the people’s ability to engage in public political discourse and their accessibility through social media campaigns laid the groundwork for the populist rise of Joko Widodo, who won the governorship in 2012 and the presidency two years later. In the gubernatorial race, he campaigned as a clean outsider ready to take on the entrenched interests of Jakarta’s political elite.
The success of that campaign relied more on the image of the candidate, and less on the still necessary support and alliances of political parties. Indonesians found an ingenious way of describing this trend as “deparpolisasi” – the weakening or removal of the country’s political monopoly by large parties via independent or maverick candidates.
The 2014 presidential election revealed unprecedented levels of populism built on public distrust of the ruling elite and the fear of being at a disadvantage. Joko again portrayed himself as an outsider and man of the people who fought for the rights of low-income earners. His populist policy suggestions included massive minimum wage hikes and the perpetuation of a nationalist-inspired food self-sufficiency policy.