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  • What the 2019 Election Says about Indonesian Democracy
  • Alexander R. Arifianto (bio)

On April 17, 2019, Indonesia conducted its highly anticipated presidential and legislative elections—its fourth since the country completed its democratic transition. However, some observers were less than pleased with how the election had unfolded over the past year, with many considering it as one of the most divisive in Indonesia's history. This was due to the prevalence of religious-based identity politics during the campaign and the increasing political polarization of the supporters of the two presidential candidates.1 Some even argued that the government's response to critiques from the opposition camp contributed to a growing authoritarianism in a country that many observers used to consider the most stable democracy in Southeast Asia.2

This essay reviews several factors that contributed to the political division and polarization surrounding the 2019 Indonesian election. The first is the rising influence of conservative Islamist groups in Indonesia over the past several years, eventuating in their support of Prabowo Subianto—a retired Suharto-era general who is a long-term opponent of incumbent president Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi). The second is Jokowi's response to Prabowo challenging his selection of the conservative cleric Ma'ruf Amin. Through this nomination, Jokowi intended to counter the perception that he was not a good Muslim presidential candidate. The third factor is Prabowo's hostile response to the election results and Jokowi's reaction to the challenges brought about by Prabowo and his supporters, which was considered heavy-handed by some.3 The fourth and final factor is the post-election maneuver by Jakarta's political elite supporting Jokowi's re-election to propose a new series of constitutional amendments, which would have ended Indonesia's [End Page 46] direct presidential election and endangered the future of Indonesia's two-decade-old democracy.

Rising Islamism and Its Growing Role in Indonesian Politics

Conservative Islamists—as represented by groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), and the Tarbiyah movement along with its political wing the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS)—have been growing in prominence over the past two decades. Restrictions on proselytization and political activities were removed during this period, and these groups have in turn gained a huge following from the internet, social media, state universities, and small Islamic study groups (majelis taklim).4 Their political clout came to the forefront when approximately one million protesters marched in Jakarta in November and December 2016 to demand the removal of the city's governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama—an ethnic Chinese Indonesian who is also a Christian. This stemmed from growing accusations that Purnama had committed an act of religious blasphemy. Known Aksi Bela Islam (Defending Islam Action), the rallies were successful in turning public opinion against Purnama, which led to his landslide loss in the May 2017 gubernatorial election and his subsequent trial and conviction on a religious blasphemy charge.

When the rallies were over, many activists—now aligned under the banner of the 212 Alumni movement—set themselves up to campaign for politicians who were in line with their vision of turning Indonesia into an Islamic state. Their next target was Jokowi, who they believed had failed to promote policies that integrated Islamic law into public policy. They formed an alliance with Prabowo, who once again proceeded to challenge Jokowi in the 2019 election. Unlike in the 2014 election, when the Islamists were just a small contingent of Prabowo's mainly ultranationalist coalition, the Islamists had now become an integral part of his campaign team. Subsequently, they played a leading role in staging negative attacks against Jokowi while mobilizing potential voters for Prabowo.

Activists in the 212 Alumni movement sponsored public rallies and protests which questioned Jokowi's track record in economic, social, and religious affairs and called for his defeat in the election. These rallies were held in major cities throughout Indonesia during the spring and summer of 2019, and many were organized under the banner of the #2019ChangePresident [End Page 47] (#2019GantiPresiden) movement.5 Even though the movement claimed that it was completely unaffiliated with the Prabowo campaign, many participants were drawn from...


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