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

Of course, it is not only the length of life that counts. The World Health Organization adds morbidity and health status to calculate expected years of life in good health. The resulting “healthy life expectancy” increased in Indonesia from 58 years in 2000 to 62 years in 2012. The UN Human Development Index calculates access to education, health care, basic social services, longer life expectancy and so forth, and it also recorded a substantial improvement, from 0.6 in 1998 to almost 0.7 in 2014.

What happened in Indonesia reflects improvements in the general livelihood of humankind. A recent study by the Swedish author Johan Norberg, titled “Progress,” summarizes these improvements. Undernourishment declined from 50 percent to about 10 percent of the global population between 1945 and 2015, while the population exploded from less than 2.5 billion to more than 7 billion. In absolute numbers, this means the number of poor fell from 1.25 billion in 1945 to 700 million in 2015, while the number of those living above the poverty line increased from 1.25 billion to 6.3 billion. This success was shared on all continents.

Yet despite all these unprecedented improvements, there is considerable discontent, and not only in Indonesia. What are the reasons? The French economist Thomas Piketty famously denounced wealth inequality; others blame income inequality and unemployment rates. A survey by Oxford University showed that it was mostly the fear of globalization that made people vote for ultra-right-wing populist parties, such as Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Freedom Party in Austria, the UK Independence Party and the National Front in France. All these factors feed into the agenda of populists on the left or right, and they matter in the domestic political arena, where populists nurture a frustration with the political elite and fan the fears of being disadvantaged or alienated. However, they do not sufficiently explain populist authoritarianism.

Authoritarian populists share a particular agenda to dismantle democracy, political competition and the voice and participation of others. They appear more successful in newly established and less consolidated democracies. A good case study can be found in the formerly divided Germany. In the western parts of the country that have a longer democratic history, the populist authoritarian AfD has little chance in local elections. In the East German city of Bitterfeld, however, where unemployment fell from 20 percent in 2003 to 8 percent in 2016, the AfD won 32 percent of the vote in early 2016. Likewise, unemployment rates in Poland and Hungary have gone down after the economic crisis in 2009, but people are supporting authoritarian leaders.

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