In Indonesia’s presidential race, identity politics fuelled by social media is testing both democracy and diversity
- Melani Budianta says as both President Joko Widodo and his opponent deploy nationalist rhetoric with a religious flavour in their campaigns, and social media hoaxes proliferate, social solidarity and faith in democracy itself are under threat
April’s election will be the largest since Indonesia began the process of democratisation in 1998, with both the presidential and legislative polls being held at the same time across the country. What is at stake and why?
First, the social solidarity of Indonesia’s over 250 million people – spread across more than 17,000 islands, with over 700 languages spoken by 300 ethnic groups – is under threat.
While the government is now decentralised down to the district level, with legislative and presidential elections being held on a one-person-one-vote basis, authoritarian rule has been replaced by horizontal tension and a complex power struggle between patrimonial political-business elites, who exploit the weak implementation of the law and resort to identity politics.
In both the 2014 and the current presidential election, the divisive issues of race, ethnicity and, most explosive of all, religion have been exploited to the fullest by campaigners. The effect of this strategy has been amplified by the use of hoaxes that have spread rapidly on social media. The globalised post-truth climate, whereby emotional appeal trumps rational debate, clouds public perception and the ability of voters to soundly discuss issues.
Although Indonesia’s Muslims are largely moderate and tolerant, there is a growing conservative trend among the educated, urban middle classes. The vision of an Islamic state, which was denied in the formation of the secular nation, is thriving, manifested in popular culture, people’s lifestyles and the sharia economy.
Apart from religion and race, the 2019 election has opened up a Pandora’s box of past traumas. The former son-in-law of Suharto, Prabowo brings with him an authoritarian, militaristic aura and the connections of the Suharto clan.
Moreover, communist phobia is pervasive at the moment. While during the 2014 election, Widodo had to clarify a fake obituary, which featured a photo of his younger self with a Chinese name, this time around, he has had to deny the rumour that he was a member of the banned Indonesian Communist Party.
In an election in which identity politics is a playing card and hoax a campaign strategy, not only social solidarity, but also the democratic foundation of the country itself is at stake. In early January, a rumour spread on social media that seven containers from China were found in Tanjung Priok Port, containing cast ballots for Widodo and Amin. This was clearly meant to cast doubt on the neutrality of the General Elections Commission, thus undermining the credibility of the election process itself. While the authorities moved quickly to squash the rumour, faith in the democratic model took a hit.
Given the economic standing and stability that Indonesia has achieved so far, and the demographic bonus of millennial youth looking forward to a vibrant future, April’s election will be a critical test. If national solidarity and faith in democracy can be upheld, the country can look forward to fulfilling this dream. If not, then whoever wins the election will have to mend the shattered fabric that has held the diverse population together.
Indonesia is not alone in dealing with the global wave of right-wing populism, xenophobia and post-truth ignorance. What Indonesian political elites should realise, however, is the cost of riding this dangerous wave for the future of the country.
Melani Budianta is a professor of literature and cultural studies at the Faculty of Humanities, Universitas Indonesia. She is an intellectual-activist, who has published works on gender and cultural diversity