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

Recent mass demonstrations by hard-line Islamist groups, and the ongoing blasphemy trial of Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was backed by Joko in the 2017 gubernatorial election (the runoff of which occurred after Strategic Review was published on April 1), must be seen in the same light. The Chinese community in Indonesia perceived it as a breakthrough when Basuki, a Christian of Chinese descent, became Joko’s running mate in the 2012 Jakarta election, and when he assumed the governorship in 2014.

Islamist hard-liners hate Basuki and cringe at the thought of a non-Muslim being in charge of Jakarta, which resembles the populist authoritarian rhetoric of alleged proxy war “assaults” by foreign powers against the Indonesian nation. Gatot has argued that foreign influences undermine Indonesian values and cause unwanted societal and cultural change. (This would include drug use and homosexuality, among others.) In the same vein, nonbinding fatwas by the Indonesian Ulema Council last year banned Muslims from voting for a non-Muslim and demanded that Muslim workers at shopping malls and stores not wear Christmas-related outfits. The violent, hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which organized the mass demonstrations against Basuki, unlawfully raided several shopping malls in Surabaya, the capital of East Java Province, to enforce this nonbinding decree.

The interests of populist authoritarianism and Islamic extremism appeared to be aligned when it came to opposing the candidacy of Basuki in Jakarta. They both evoked fears of being dominated by foreign interests that are detrimental to Indonesians and their faith. Both consider and declare themselves defenders of Indonesians.

An actual alliance between certain parts of the military and Islamist groups originated during the final stages of the New Order regime. According to Marcus Mietzner, a political scientist at the Australian National University, it started in the late 1980s and early 1990s when certain Army leaders sought to advance their interests by cultivating Islamic support groups against other leaders within the Army. This alliance survived the fall of the Soeharto regime and even appeared to cooperate with Islamist groups that were involved in several cases of communal violence in the early 2000s. During Yudhoyono’s 10 years in office, the FPI managed to maintain its relationship with parts of the government and security forces. Political scientists are still debating whether they were just encouraged by Yudhoyono’s indecisive response to their mass violence, including mob murders of members of minority groups, or if they received his “tacit approval” to carry on with growing religious intolerance and Islamist violence against the Ahmadiyah, Shiites and Christians.

Populist authoritarianism in this year’s Jakarta gubernatorial election was stronger than ever seen before. Both Prabowo and Gatot used it to examine their chances in possible presidential runs in 2019, while the Islamists publicly demonstrated their ability to mobilize massive and influential crowds and push their extreme agenda. The fact that these diverse interests can align makes populist authoritarianism the Achilles’ heel of Indonesia’s fragile democracy.

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