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

Meanwhile, Joko’s opponent, Prabowo, evoked voters’ fears of being dominated by foreigners and losing their cultural identity. To the tune of populists such as Donald Trump, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, he claimed the country was in crisis and needed protection, because otherwise its wealth would be snatched away.

Populists may push for more conservative or progressive values, or for a more universal outlook versus a nationalist agenda. What unites their differing positions, as Princeton University professor Jan-Werner Müller argues, is a rejection of pluralism, because populists monopolize the definition of what lies in the interest of the people. It becomes worse, and democracy is eventually threatened, when populists claim exclusive moral representation of the “proper” people. Based on that moral appeal, they can argue that an authoritarian state needs to exclude those not considered as part of that group.

The impact of this populism is determined by the resilience or fragility of democratic principles and institutions. Democratic principles such as the separation of powers are generally accepted in Western democracies, and their institutions are well consolidated and impersonalized. Indonesia’s democracy, however, is only about 20 years old. The institutions have not fully consolidated, and nostalgic memories of the previous authoritarian regime do not make it the only game in town.

The threat to a fragile democracy exacerbates when authoritarian forces join a coalition with other radical groups who pursue similar objectives. Recent events surrounding the 2017 gubernatorial election in Jakarta made this quite apparent.

President Joko was governor for only two years and then moved into the Presidential Palace in 2014, which emphasized the importance of elections in Jakarta in winning national power. Jakarta is a battleground for leaders who aspire to lead the nation. Not necessarily by standing as candidates, but by testing their own popularity and their electoral machinery. In January, Prabowo declared to members of his opposition Gerindra Party about gubernatorial candidates in Jakarta: “If you can make them win, God willing, you will also win Indonesia.”

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