When you shuffle through the deck of the world’s more bombastic populist leaders, Indonesia’s quietly spoken president, Joko Widodo, is not the first man who comes to mind. Presidents Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, as well as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are more obvious choices.
However, the culture wars are heating up in Southeast Asia’s largest economy, home to more than 270 million people. Rising religious intolerance and criminal complaints against activists who challenge politicians are increasingly common in a country where the government is openly jailing critics. Given that democratic backsliding is a key measure of a populist movement, you get the picture.
Where it goes from here could be a test of Jokowi’s leadership and a metric for Indonesia’s once-lauded democracy as it prepares to take on the year-long presidency of the large G20 economies next month — and the extra scrutiny such a role entails.
It is true that Indonesia has been increasingly divided for some time. The election that brought the former furniture maker to power in 2014, and the one in 2019 that kept him there for a second term, were accompanied by a steady rise in sectarianism. Islamist groups brought more than 500,000 people to the streets in 2016 to protest against Jakarta’s Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, who was later jailed for blasphemy.
The moderate Jokowi has used several strategies to silence persistent questions over his own commitment to Islam, drawing in conservative leaders such as Ma’ruf Amin as his vice president and co-opting the rival he defeated twice at the ballot box, Prabowo Subianto, into his Cabinet.
At the same time, he has treated other high-profile Islamist figures like hardline cleric Rizieq Shihab as political threats and banned groups such as Hizbut-Tahrir Indonesia, which calls for a global caliphate of believers. However, the president’s policy of dividing to contain has also deepened fault lines.
By any measure, Indonesian society has become more conservative in the world’s most-populous Muslim-majority country. There have been more than 700 Shariah-inspired regulations put in place across many of the 34 provinces over the past two decades. The impact on religious minorities, and women and girls, is particularly harsh. There are at least at least 64 mandatory hijab regulations that compel women to wear the headscarf, especially for female civil servants and in some public places.
Other directives impose night curfews on women, and bar them from wearing long pants in some municipalities, said Andreas Harsono, senior researcher on Indonesia at Human Rights Watch.
“We are talking about millions of women forced to wear the hijab, in a significant departure from the early years post-Suharto,” Harsono said, referring to the democratic and human-rights flowering after the downfall of the long-time dictator amid street protests and economic turmoil in 1998.
Similarly, there are 45 regulations affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. More than 200 churches have been closed down. Some mosques have been forced to shut in retaliation. Jokowi, like the presidents before him, has done little to ease such restrictions, Harsono said.
There are few more sensitive issues in a country with a bloody history of sectarian violence.
Rising conservatism and the corresponding decline in civil liberties — including the intensifying tensions between Islamists and non-Islamists — has driven the decline in Indonesia’s democracy, said Alif Satria, who researches terrorism, political violence and religious intolerance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.
A large part of this has been the misuse of Indonesia’s information technology law, which includes jail time for defamation and hate speech, two laws weaponized by Islamists and politicians alike.
“Today, it is being used by the government to jail and silence its critics,” Satria told me, noting that as many as 300 people were tried under these laws between 2016 and last year. “It definitely has a chilling effect.”
Jokowi’s response to the pandemic, in particular Indonesia’s deadly second wave, is one of the latest issues to escalate into a political conflict. His cabinet, full of oligarchs, insisted on keeping the capital open for business against the advice of health officials. Pitting the Islamist governor of Jakarta, Anies Baswedan, against the business-friendly president produced no winners. Indonesia became the new virus epicenter in Asia afterward.
Despite the government’s response to critics — including Greenpeace activists threatened with criminal action after they called out Jokowi for his claims that deforestation had decreased on his watch at the COP26 climate conference — the president’s popularity endures, even if it has declined.
A survey released in August by Indikator Politik said that about 59 percent of respondents were satisfied with him, the lowest level since March 2016. That compares with 64 percent in April and 65 percent in July last year. His sprawling but solid coalition takes in almost 80 percent of all parties.
Still, there have been been additional red flags of a troubled democracy. Along with building another political family dynasty by backing his son and son-in-law in recent mayoral elections, Jokowi’s administration has weakened the country’s anti-corruption body, while the armed forces are increasingly involved in civilian affairs, including running the COVID-19 response. Freedom House, a non-profit group specializing in human rights and democracy, has downgraded Indonesia from “free” to “partly free” under his watch, and people are feeling it.
In 2009, five years before Jokowi became president, just 17 percent believed that citizens were afraid to talk about politics. That has increased this year to 39 percent, according to nationwide probability sampling based on public opinion surveys by Lembaga Survei Indonesia and Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting that features in an article titled Jokowi Sidelines Democracy, published last month in Johns Hopkins University’s Journal of Democracy.
With Jokowi’s second and final term as president due to end in 2024, the question is, how much further can Indonesia fall?
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