Democracy under watch! As Indonesia goes for Elections this April

Merieleen Engtipi
January 26, 2019


Across regions and countries, democratic practices have seen a downward curve for the 12th consecutive year with 71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties and only 35 showing signs of improvement, as stated by the Freedom House report. The selective travel ban on Muslim majority countries to the United States and the xenophobic elements fuelled by the 2015 refugee crises in the European Union made the ground for far-right parties to occupy legislative space in countries such as Germany, Austria, Netherlands, and France. Moreover, in this new era of digitization, Political parties campaigning via social media led to micro-targeting. Such as in the US, Cambridge Analytical obtained the profiles of 50 million Facebook users to target voters and track their reactions without their knowledge. This digital campaigning has caused severe threats to the practice of transparency and thus questioning the norms of free and fair elections using elements of hate and fear. In this political scenario, Indonesia will go for Presidential and legislative election in April; it will be crucial to watch the extent to which Social Media is used in bringing the elements of hate and fear in the people.Simultaneously, how strong will the right wing parties lay ground on the Indonesian election?

Indonesia’s Democracy and Election

More than 85% of the Indonesian population follows Islam as their religion, making Indonesia also the most significant Muslim dominated democratic country in the world. However, Indonesia has had to confront its internal struggles of ethnic and religious communities seeking the right for self-determination. The Papua and the West Papua region has been fighting for the right to self-determination, and at the same time, various cases of harassment, wrongful imprisonment, and abuse of power by the police have been observed, including the intimidation and deportation of foreign journalists. There also has been a systematic infringement of economic, civil and political rights and social life of the natives of West Papua by the Indonesian state. Religion plays a vital role in Indonesia’s democracy. SitiAisyah, the owner of an Islamic school, was sentenced to 30 months on blasphemy for “strange teaching.” The cases of human rights abuse in the form of wrongful imprisonment contributed Indonesia to a weak standing in the Human Rights Watch.

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the end of the authoritarian regime of Suharto and the beginning of a New Democratic regime in Indonesia. Since the fall of the Suharto regime, Indonesia has followed the democratic election process and has democratically elected four national leaders in 20 years. Now Indonesia will once again witness the head-to-head contest between the incumbent Joko Widodo popularly known as “Jokowi” and the son-in-law of Suharto, PrabowoSubianto. In the 2014 elections, due to the support from Islam based parties, Prabowo’s coalition was seen as more Islamic, and on the other hand, Jokowi’s coalition was perceived as more secular and nationalist.

In the upcoming election, Mr. Widodo, a liberal candidate in the 2014 elections has chosen a Muslim cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, head of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), as his running mate, which is seen as a political strategy to garner support from the conservatives. Whereas, his opponent, Mr. Subianto has chosen a businessman turned politician and former deputy governor of Jakarta Mr. Sandiaga Uno, a moderate Muslim as his running mate.

Social Media and the Indonesian Election

Recently, social media platforms have been used by the Indonesian political actors to promote their ideologies. The propagators are commonly known as “buzzers” have made their presence in the social media to influence the election outcomes. Early last year, a string of arrests had been made against a cyber-jihadist network known as the Muslim Cyber Army (MCA). The MCA is an umbrella network working in support of a few interested parties with similar radical views working to bring down the government. According to an investigation conducted by The Guardian, the MCA employ semi-automated accounts to incite social and religious divide amongst the people. They thrive on the digital environment, and the motive is to build Islamic sympathiser, hatred for the minority groups, and support for the hardliners, and selective targets were made against people that criticized Islam in the social media.

In the elections in Europe, the far right could gain a strong following in the social media space. The populist receive much of its support from the social media, which raises the question on whether the social media has fuelled the populist threat to democratic practices. Indonesian is also one of the top five users of Facebook and Twitter. Therefore, this election will determine whether the use of social media by some radical groups would lead to right conservative strong standing in this election, and Indonesia’s democratic status about the free and fair election in the backdrop of a series of elections taken place in Europe.

As observed in the recent presidential debate, both the parties did not take a positive view on an issue relating to human rights, terrorism, and the rule of law. This election does not present clarity of stand between the two candidates in comparison to the 2014 election. For many, Jokowi’s decision to bring Ma’ruf Amin with the anti-right record is suggestive of strong conservative presence in electoral politics. The presence of a substantial right conservative element in the upcoming election pushes the voters to choose the extreme and less conservative candidate.

Finally, one has to see to what extent the use of social media networks to influence users in voting patterns as well as making personal attacks to certain political leaders and supporters would affect Indonesia’s electoral process about democratic values. Simultaneously, if the extreme right conservative comes to power, the democratic practices of the Indonesian state will only slide downward giving way for radicals.

*** The author is currently a PhD scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***