Indonesia’s long democratization process has faced many challenges. The country’s history of authoritarianism, and the Suharto regime that followed it, has left a legacy of skepticism and fear among some citizens. However, since the fall of the New Order era in 1999, Indonesia has had four parliamentary elections and a direct popular vote for president. The transitions have been peaceful and without significant violence, and in most cases they comply with the Indonesian Constitution.
The evolution of Indonesia’s political system from a centrally controlled state to one that is more open and pluralistic is complicated by the fact that its citizens are highly diverse in terms of ethnicity, religion and culture. This makes a successful democracy more complex, as it requires addressing social, economic and religious tensions, while maintaining the rule of law and human rights.
Despite this, Indonesia’s recent shift toward more polarized politics has been fueled by two structural factors: its susceptibility to populism and the growing Islamization of society. The Islamic-pluralist divide, which remained dormant during the administration of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, sharpened significantly in the Jokowi presidency.
As a result of this shift, more partisan and illiberal messages became increasingly effective in the 2014 presidential campaign. A powerful smear campaign was launched against Jokowi by the conservative Islamic party, Islamist figures and hardline Muslim groups. It was based on a variety of false and misleading arguments, including that Jokowi’s stance on religion made him unsuited to govern Indonesia, that he had ties with the Communist Party and that he had secretly arranged for the assassination of former President Suharto.
The political elites behind this smear campaign cultivated a divide that had long existed in the country’s politics. This cleavage was especially strong between the more conservative Islamic parties and the more liberal, multi-ethnic parties in Jokowi’s coalition, such as the PDI-P.
In 2014, the PDI-P won a majority in the legislature and took power in parliament. The party was also the most prominent political force in Jokowi’s home province of West Java, where it has dominated local government for years.
During his local government days, Jokowi was known for his anti-corruption policies and can-do track record. This gave him an outsider status and raised expectations both within and outside of Indonesia that he would bring reformist movements to the national stage.
However, while Jokowi’s reformist ideas and anti-corruption ethos may have been appealing to many voters in 2014, they did not necessarily translate into support for his administration. In fact, as a result of his more illiberal tendencies and increasing cooperation with strongman populists, Jokowi’s popularity has decreased.
The Indonesian military’s role in the political process has also evolved. Traditionally, the army has viewed itself as the nation’s “guardians”; its territorial presence and community service programs have contributed to this belief. During the Jokowi administration, this belief was further bolstered by a renewed focus on external activities such as peacekeeping.
The most pressing security concern for Indonesia today is the threat posed by a small armed movement in West Papua. The armed resistance, largely nonviolent, aims to resist Indonesia’s government and its exploitation of the region’s vast natural resources. It also seeks to protect the human rights of Papuans, including their right to freedom of speech and association. The current president, Joko Widodo, has pledged to change Indonesia’s approach to dealing with Papuans.