democratic country. Indeed, while political parties are controlled by conglomerates and their cronies, elections remain open and free. Money politics and sectarianism are certainly part of the parcel, but anyone, given enough resources and influence, is allowed to participate in it.ndonesia has a host of illiberal problems such as rampant corruption, the militarization of West Papua, and trenchant political conservatism. But it has always managed to sustain the impression that it nonetheless remains a
Defining how politically free a country is based on its formal features, however, tends to overlook how several illiberal elements — hitherto dubbed individual features — can rapidly coalesce to annul an entire nation’s democratic norms. This has been the threat looming over Indonesia.
Earlier this year, several Cabinet ministers began touting the idea of prolonging Indonesia’s presidential terms. At present, the president can only serve for a maximum period of 10 years, or two five-year tenures. The current agenda is to raise the limit to 15 years. The goal is to allow President Joko “Jokowi“ Widodo to run for a third term.
It began when Muhaimin Iskandar, chairman of the traditional-Islamic National Awakening Party (PKB), suggested extending the current presidential tenure for one to two years. According to Muhaimin, the business, banking, and small to medium enterprise sectors had conveyed to him their anxieties over how a 2024 election could jeopardize the post-pandemic economic recovery. Similarly, Investment Minister Bahlil Lahadalia claimed that an election-related political crisis might lead to an unfavorable economic downturn, especially since Indonesia had just started to recoup its lost GDP over two years of COVID-19.
Others like National Mandate Party leader Zulkifli Hasan have even gone to the lengths of citing the Ukrainian invasion and the instability of international geopolitics to justify postponing the polls. Most absurd of all, however, was Coordinating Minister of Maritime and Investment Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan’s claim that 110 million internet users were shown through aggregated metadata to “desire” an additional term for Jokowi. To this day, Luhut refuses to disclose these data, saying they were “gathered through personal means rather than using state apparatus.”
The public has met these claims with hostility. On April 11, 2022, students conducted rallies in Jakarta, West Java, and South Sulawesi in protest over the ministers’ remarks, which could not have been uttered at a worse time. In the past three months, Indonesia had suffered a nationwide shortage of cooking oil despite being the world’s largest palm oil exporter — affecting the price of other consumer products, from cookies to detergent and cosmetics, containing the raw material.
In response, the president urged his ministers to desist from talks about delaying the election or adding a third term; the chorus died out soon after. Yet Jokowi has yet to explicitly oppose the idea, offering instead his trademark vague remarks of “we simply need to comply with the Constitution.” How convenient would it be then if the Constitution were simply changed?
After polarization, what?
The idea of a third presidential term is tempting for the political elite. Jokowi’s current coalition in Parliament consists of seven political parties, with the exception of the Democratic Party and the Conservative-Islamic Prosperous Justice Party. Together, these two outsiders encompass only 105 out of the 575 seats in the national legislative body, below the 20-percent threshold of 119 seats required to nominate a presidential candidate. Ultimately, Jokowi’s renomination will likely see only one candidate in the 2024 election.
Meanwhile, the issue for the coalition is who might be electable aside from Jokowi. It’s no secret that most party leaders have their own political aspirations.
Puan Maharani is keen to take on the baton of the Soekarno dynasty, while Airlangga Hartanto of Golkar, Muhaimin Iskandar of the PKB, and even two-time presidential rival Prabowo Subianto have all been rumored to eye the next election. The same can be said of politicians trying to replicate Jokowi’s success of leapfrogging from the local to the national political arena, such as Governors Ganjar Pranowo of Central Java, Anies Baswedan of Jakarta, and Ridwan Kamil of West Java.
The problem, as Indonesia scholar Max Lane points out, is that none of these names has scored higher than 20 percent in recent electability polls, meaning that there is no risk-free figure for the coalition to rally around. Any new candidate’s nomination likely means the ruling political parties would have to reconfigure their alliances, jeopardize ongoing business deals, and engender new social divisions — all with the risk of failing miserably in the process.
How did Indonesia arrive at this impasse? When Jokowi burst into the national political scene as Jakarta governor in 2012, he was touted as a charismatic outsider who would make politics relevant for the people again. At the time, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s reign was a snoozefest, with Indonesian democracy stagnating after high hopes of political reform. Yudhoyono’s tenure was marked largely by its disconnection from the lives of ordinary people, much like an automaton minding its own business. His leadership, often described as “hesitant and lethargic,” enforced a general sense of political apathy among Indonesians.
Jokowi’s 2012 and 2014 campaigns took advantage of this sullen mood. He provided populist platforms, espousing reformist aspirations of civilians to undo elite influence and bureaucratic inefficiencies endemic within Indonesian politics. On the other end of the ideological cleavage, Prabowo Subianto employed similar populist tactics, making unlikely bedfellows of conservative Islamists and several factions within the military as his primary constituents.
In the years that followed, the bedrock of Indonesian politics would largely be sustained by the polarization within these two camps, reaching its peak in the consolidation of Political Islamic forces via the 212 Movement. This polarization has even managed to cast its shadow beyond elections, such as when political elites from Jokowi’s camp cite rumors of a clandestine hardline Muslim faction targeting “nationalist” politicians within Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission, providing the pretext to put corruption investigations on a leash.
Yet as political scientist Eve Warburton has pointed out, this polarization gradually loses any trace of a concrete political vision and simply boils down to the denouncement of the other camp as an existential threat. In his observation of the 2019 Indonesian presidential polls, Southeast Asian media expert Ross Tapsell also identified a paradox where the ideological and programmatic differences between Jokowi and Prabowo were increasingly hard to distinguish, and yet the stakes of the election had never been felt to be even greater. In other words, no one really knew what to expect once their preferred candidate actually got elected; the point was just not to let the other side win.
After Jokowi’s second presidential victory in 2019, any remainder of this polarization quickly became nullified — as if no one ever really wanted it in the first place. Firstly, most of the political elite managed to be incorporated into Jokowi’s administration, including his political adversaries. Prabowo was appointed defense minister, and his running mate, business bigwig Sandiaga Uno, creative economy and tourism minister. Even Jokowi’s own Vice President, Ma’ruf Amin, was a conservative cleric who campaigned against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama during his blasphemy trial and provided leeway for the 212 Movement to consolidate.
Secondly, the government sought to dismantle the social base of Political Islam, the only remaining populist adversary to the elite consolidation. It disbanded two large Islamic groups, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia and the Islamic Defenders Front, under accusations of conducting activities contradicting the state ideology of Pancasila and engaging in “violent criminal acts.” The point is not that if any Political Islam or anti-Jokowi factions still exist in society — they do — but that these elements remain free-floating and unable to merge together and pose a meaningful threat.
Two possible outcomes
In 2009, the late theorist Mark Fisher coined the term “Capitalist Realism” to elucidate the somber acceptance of capitalism as the only viable economic and political system of our times. According to Fisher, this disenchantment is not the result of propaganda wherein the capitalist class actively disseminates its ideology in hopes of duping the rest of society, but rather a “pervasive atmosphere … acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action [emphasis added].” One need not enthusiastically embrace capitalism to participate in it, Fisher argued. By simply going back to work every day, we are already doing our bit in turning the wheels of the economic system.
In a similar vein, one might well designate the pervasive atmosphere currently permeating Indonesian political life as “Jokowi Realism,” in which there is seemingly no conceivable political alternative for running the country other than that of Jokowi’s leadership — even if his time in power is running out. And much like Fisher’s idea of Capitalist Realism, Jokowi Realism is not a condition in which people zealously believe he should be running for the third time, but rather the inability to imagine what national politics would look like after his tenure is over.
Another way to account for “Jokowi Realism” is the exhaustion of populist politics in Indonesia. Broadly speaking, populism relies on three factors to work: one, a general state of political disintermediation, in which the population has a very loose political affinity to political parties, and, as such, lacks any political commitment; two, the activation of “ideological” and social polarization to foster an “us versus them” logic; and three, the emergence of a populist leader who is able to bind different factions and demographics of the society and mobilize them. While the first has been Indonesia’s default state of political arrangement for decades, the dismantling of Political Islam and lack of electability among potential candidates mean that the next election is unlikely to be fought along populist lines.
This could lead to one of two outcomes: either the 2024 presidential election will be an elite-level conflict among oligarchs (who will have to hastily reconfigure their alliances around a makeshift candidate), or it would be a renomination of Joko Widodo after swift constitutional tinkering. If Indonesia’s democratic alliance is to prevent the latter from happening, it has to relentlessly show that Jokowi’s electability for a third term will be devastatingly low so that nominating him poses far more risks than rewards. After all, the wager of a third presidential term is almost entirely dependent on Jokowi running as a single candidate. Once enough animosity toward the third term has fomented, the coalition’s delicate balance could be under threat as an anti-Jokowi oligarch faction may emerge.
One crucial distinction here is that while the regime has effectively blocked out populist lanes within the current political setup, it is precisely this attempt to preserve the status quo at all cost — such as gesturing toward electoral authoritarianism — that might give birth to new populist currents. In this scenario, the people may finally have a common nemesis to galvanize against.
Once again, Indonesia’s democratic alliance finds itself at a fork in the road. If it eventually succeeds to break the spell of Jokowi’s electability to prevent a third term, this just means paving the way for arbitrary oligarch alliances fighting each other. Yet if Jokowi manages to get nominated for the third time, it is likely that the populist unrest toward him will be reactionary and uncoordinated, making it easily coopted by opportunistic oligarchic forces as well.
The first option is far more preferable to the latter as it means no draconian change is made to the Charter. But it is still a merely defensive position — and one that is very difficult to make any good of. ●
Eduard Lazarus is a Jakarta-based journalist and editor writing on media and social movements.