The world’s largest Islamic state has the new president: Joko Widodo

The world’s largest Islamic state has the new president: Joko Widodo

Indonesia’s recent presidential election has put a man of the people in the country’s most senior political office. What kind of country is Indonesia and how important is it? J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.

For many people, Indonesia is something of an anomaly. It is the world’s fourth largest nation in terms of population (only China, India and the United States are larger), it is the world’s largest Muslim nation, it is rich in natural resources and it is strategically placed right across one of the world’s busiest sea lanes. And it is a democratic nation with a robust political system after decades of increasingly authoritarian, dictatorial rulers – Presidents Sukarno and Suharto (after hundreds of years of Dutch colonial rule that increasingly penetrated all sectors of the entire archipelago’s economic and political life).

Following an attempted coup d’état by the country’s communist party, a counter-coup by the military in September 1965, General Suharto emerged as the country’s president after the major political violence that led to Sukarno’s eventual ouster and that may have included as many as a half million fatalities. More recently, following the rustication of former president Suharto in 1998, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, Indonesia has finally been able to achieve a sequence of increasingly democratic, transparent and competitive presidential and parliamentary elections.

South Africans should, of course, be able to acknowledge Indonesia if for no other reason than that the islands that became Indonesia are the proximate cause of the founding of Cape Town (and eventually, therefore, South Africa as a nation) and the real reason for the establishment of the Dutch East India Company, the VOC. Cape Town, of course, was first settled as a supply station for Dutch ships bound to the East. The VOC was engaged in a cutthroat (sometimes quite literally) competition with the Portuguese, English, Arabs, French and Spanish for the extremely lucrative trade in spices from, naturally, the Spice Islands – ranging from tiny Banda Island in the eastern part of the archipelago to the pepper plantations of northern Sumatra.

Eventually, the Dutch consolidated their political and economic control over the region and, by the beginning of the 20th century, could claim that every place between the far northern tip of Sumatra to Merauke on the coast of New Guinea was included in the vast Dutch East Indies Empire. Indigenous political movements generally took the form of modernist Islamic movements and social movements aiming to create equality before the law for both indigenes and Europeans (there were over half a million in Indonesia shortly before World War II, as well as a significant number of Chinese migrants as well), rather than independence per se.

In 1942, the Japanese quickly conquered the Dutch East Indies after the fall of Singapore and the attack on Pearl Harbour, and they ruled the islands with a ferocity that was often significantly harsher than the general run of Dutch colonial rule. This included recruitment of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian “voluntary” workers who toiled in construction projects as far away as Burma and Thailand – where many thousands perished. However, right at the end of the war, the Japanese encouraged Indonesians to declare their independence (perhaps hoping that they would help defend the Japanese occupation against the imminent return of the Allied nations). Following this declaration, Indonesians resisted the re-imposition of Dutch rule, with the fighting continuing until 1949 when the Dutch finally acquiesced in accepting Indonesia’s full independence.

In economic terms, the country is rich in both established mineral and agricultural resources and potential ones. These include massive tin, gold, petroleum and natural gas deposits that have been exploited for years, while rubber, timber, rice, palm oil and other agricultural and forestry commodities are also a significant part of the country’s economic landscape. In recent years, however, the country’s industrial growth has taken off as well, with a wide range of light and heavy industry engaged in production for domestic and export markets. (Readers checking the labels in their shoes and clothing, toys, kitchenware, and household items will likely find “made in Indonesia” printed on many of them.)

But it is Indonesia’s ethnic, cultural and religious diversity that astounds. In a country with hundreds of inhabited islands, the country has dozens of discrete languages and ethnicities. (The largest are the Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese, Batak, Acehnese, Minangkabau, Malay, Dayak, Makassarese, Menadanese, and the Balinese). While many Indonesians – especially the Batak, Menadanese, and much of the Chinese community – are Christian, the vast majority of the country’s population of over 230 million people is Muslim. It is also a nation with a luxuriant heritage of artistic and cultural activity.

By the numbers, Indonesia is the world’s largest Islamic nation. Unlike much of the Muslim world, except for some relatively small groups, and until recently for virtually any, most Indonesian Muslims would hardly be categorised as fundamentalist or hard-core in comparison to the rest of the world. Even Indonesian Islamic fundamentalists, historically, have largely been modernist reformers, eager to strip away additional features added over centuries to religious practice and to make use of Islam as a religion of national renewal.  In fact, many Indonesian Muslims are significantly syncretic in their beliefs – incorporating elements drawn from an ancient animist past as well as influences from the Buddhism and Hinduism that were in the islands long before Islam arrived. Two of the world’s premier religious monuments – Borobudur and Prambanan – date from the ascendancy of those two religions on Java.

Scholars have debated the distinctiveness of Islam in Indonesia in contrast to the rest of the world, noting that Islam did not arrive in the islands on the backs of conquerors. Rather it came with merchants and traders from India and was eventually embraced further as an alternative to the even more alien religions brought by early European visitors.  As a result, for many Indonesians, their Islam has continued to allow for customary practices from those earlier religions that continue to retain their attractiveness for many. Uniquely for a majority Islamic state, Indonesia has formally enshrined the right of people to worship as Protestants or Catholics, and as adherents of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam without restriction.

In international relations terms, Indonesia has successfully maintained its non-aligned status since its independence. The city of Bandung was, in fact, the site for the founding of the non-aligned movement in 1955. Over the years, in some ways, Indonesia began to lean significantly towards ties with China, but that link was largely sundered when it became clear China had supplied the Indonesian Communist Party with weapons, leading up to the 1965 coup and counter-coup.

In succeeding years, under General, then President Suharto, the country began to lean more closely towards the US, and that country quietly acquiesced in Indonesia’s forcible seizure of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor at the time when Portugal retreated from empire in 1975. More recently, most Indonesian international efforts have been as part of the strengthening the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – ASEAN – in order to make it into a regional body that has real heft internationally. Given Indonesia’s size, it should at least be a question as to whether it should also be a member of BRICS, although feelings towards China might still militate against such move – even if invited.

With this sometimes-problematic background, Indonesia has been impressive in successfully transforming itself into an increasingly democratic state since President Suharto’s departure from office. Islamic reformist Abdurrahman Wahid was president from 1999 until 2001 when he was impeached for trying to dissolve the country’s parliament (and also incurring the wrath of the nation’s military). Succeeded by Megawati Sukarnoputri, the first female leader in the country and the daughter of its first president, during her tenure until 2004, Indonesia entered a sustained period of economic growth. In turn, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was victorious in its next election. Yudhoyono became the first president elected in a full, direct national election.

Jakarta Metropolitan District Governor Joko Widodo and Suharto-era ex-general (and a former President Suharto son-in-law) Prabowo Subianto faced each other in the country’s 9 July election. Widodo, or as he is universally called in Indonesia, Jokowi, won a significant victory in that election, with a winning margin of some 8.5 million votes out of a total of nearly 133 million votes cast. Final results showed that Widodo, from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, received just fewer than 71 million votes, or 53%, while Subianto got 62.6 million votes, or 47%. Voter turnout was some 71%.

Subianto claimed to have withdrawn from the election at the last moment in the face of what he charged was massive fraud and his campaign has now said they would file legal challenges in the country’s top court.
As campaign spokesman Tantowi Yahya told journalists “We will not surrender our rights” to a second vote and that “the indication of massive fraud and widespread irregularities is overwhelming.” These irregularities, according to Subianto’s campaign team included problems with the voters’ roll, putting some 21 million votes in the balance.

Nevertheless, election observers argue the vote was generally both free and fair, with only minimal abnormalities. Previous losing candidates in earlier elections have similarly challenged results, but the courts have ruled that the results held. This new case will be heard in two weeks with a ruling on 21 August, a ruling that cannot be further appealed according to Indonesian law. Election Supervisory Board Commissioner Nelson Simanjuntak has also said the case is unlikely to change the outcome because of that big margin of victory. Or, as Simanjuntak explained, “They must show strong and honest evidence,” and, besides, his board is ready to open its records of the voting results to the court.

While Subianto’s campaign asked world leaders not to offer congratulations to Jokowi until after the appeal was heard, official reactions have already been received from US President Obama, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as well as all of the heads of state from the other ASEAN nations. In Obama’s statement, the president said he looked forward to working with Widodo to deepen bilateral relations, noting, “Through this free and fair election, the people of Indonesia have once again shown their commitment to democracy.”

Widodo is 53 years old and his political style is seen as reflective of a popular yearning for “new”, “clean” leaders, rather than the older style of traditional patronage networks. As the Guardian wrote, “The victory of Joko Widodo in the presidential elections, although still disputed by his opponent, represents a further advance in Indonesian political life. It means that for the first time a person with no direct connections with the older, authoritarian era will occupy the country’s highest office.” The ties to the past authoritarian culture are not entirely sundered with Jokowi’s election, however. Widodo was a political protégé of Megawati Sukarnoputri, and his vice president, Jusuf Kalla, was a leader of Golkar, the majority party under President Suharto. Nevertheless, analysts say Widodo really is a different kind of politician and a different kind of man.

Widodo’s father made a modest living making furniture in a small town in Central Java near the city of Surakarta. He attended Gadjah Mada University in Jogjakarta studying forestry and then went into the furniture business afterwards, like his father, before entering politics. Winning the mayorship of Surakarta, he instituted a more progressive style of leadership, including impromptu visits to meet with ordinary citizens to hear their complaints about civic government, better health care and improved public parks and other amenities. His successes pushed him into the national limelight such that he won the governorship of the Jakarta metropolitan region, the capital and surrounding territory. And now he is president.

Evaluating this election’s results, the Guardian judged, “Indonesia is the fourth most populous country, the third largest democracy, and the biggest Muslim nation. It made the transition from dictatorship to democratic rule after the fall of Suharto in 1998 with remarkable smoothness. For years it counted with Turkey as a leading model of democracy for the Islamic world. Now, with Turkey showing signs of a regression to authoritarianism, troubled democracies in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and only Tunisia still holding on to what now seem the very fleeting achievements of the Arab spring, Indonesia constitutes, because of its size and importance, a massive and even more relevant proof that democracy can work as well in Muslim societies as in others.”

Analysts now say Widodo faces five key challenges, right out of the starting gate. First will be to pick a strong cabinet, especially given his relative lack of experience at the national government level. Second will be to cut the fuel subsidy bill on government, an expense that is a significant economic and financial distortion on the government budget. Third, is an urgent need to improve the investment climate, given the nation’s problems with a flawed legal system and a wave of rising economic nationalism, so as to bring in urgently needed FDI. Fourth, he will need to manage the party under whose banner he was elected, given the unease by some within that party over their own winning candidate. Finally, he will need to build successful coalition politics within the national parliament, especially since his party only holds 37% of the seats in the lower house, the more powerful chamber. In doing this, the new president will need to build support through the uniquely Indonesian form of consensus building.

Still Widodo has already demonstrated a significant level of political skill and agility and smart money is on him – at least for now. As Asia expert Greg Poling at the Center for Security and International Studies in Washington says, “Outgoing President Yudhoyono served for a decade as the first democratically elected president in post-Suharto Indonesia. Jokowi now stands poised to take over from him in the nation’s first peaceful transfer of power between one directly elected leader and another. That is a remarkable step.” Given the size and influence wielded by Indonesia in the region, success for Jokowi could even have some real influence on other more authoritarian nations in the region. DM

Photo: Then still presidential candidate from the Indonesia Democratic Party for Struggle Joko Widodo (C) is greeted by supporters during a meeting in Surabaya, Indonesia, 14 July 2014. EPA/FULLY HANDOKO

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