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The web of identity politics may define elections in Indonesia, India and Nigeria

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters listen to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a public rally in Chagchari in Kamrup district of Assam, India, 09 February 2019. EPA-EFE/STR

Besides South Africa’s own complex mix of ethnicities, races, religions, and economic inequalities, all of which will have significant impacts on the country’s upcoming national polls, there are other important elections globally in which identity may be a potent influence on the outcome. In today’s article, Indonesia, India, and Nigeria are the subjects for discussion.

In today’s article, Indonesia, India, and Nigeria are the subjects for discussion. These three nations are due to hold their respective national elections shortly. The Indian election is going to take place in April or May on a date not yet finally determined; the Indonesian one is set for 17 April; and Nigeria’s had originally been set for 16 February, but was postponed for a week, just hours before it was to begin, much to the consternation and confusion of the country. It is now set for 23 February.

Previously, in these same spaces, we have discussed how identity issues have become increasingly potent elements of today’s political universe for nations in both Eastern and Western Europe, in the Middle East, as well as in the US and the UK. This has provoked social scientists such as Francis Fukuyama – the man who had famously predicted the “end of history”, what with the success of the liberal democracies over Soviet-style state socialism at the end of the 20th century – to proclaim identity as the new prime flywheel of national politics.

Until now, however, in most discussions of identity politics, the focus has largely been on developments in Europe, the Middle East, the UK, and America, with much less attention paid to other regions and nations – including some very big, famously very complex nations in Asia and Africa. But imminent elections in three such nations means some attention there is now merited.

These three nations collectively account for close to two billion people. They live in countries with equally vast natural resources (at least in two of them) and, in the case of India, it is now one of the globe’s faster-growing economies, with a globally significant, hi-tech economic sector. The success of the democratic project in each of these nations is critical for the broader success of democracy in both Africa and Asia, but identity politics can matter there greatly.

In Indonesia, ethnicity has long played an outsized role in its political and ethnic life, but, increasingly, it is becoming overlaid with some serious questions about religion. The Javanese represent an overwhelming share of the country’s total population, but there are smaller ethnic groups spread across hundreds of islands, from those sophisticated Balinese and Acehnese societies to isolated, supposedly primitive groups in the mountains and valleys of the western half of the island of New Guinea. (The other half is the entirely separate nation of Papua New Guinea.)

But, in Indonesia, too, a Chinese minority still holds a disproportionate share of the economy and is distinct from most Indonesians by religion as well – by being largely Christian. While Christianity is also officially sanctioned (along with Hinduism) as a legally approved religion, the vast majority of the country’s people are at least nominally Muslim.

This is true even if a significant share of those Muslims also hold to a range of spiritual “animist” practices that reach back to before the arrival of Islam in the Indonesian islands. Some parts of the nation, notably the islands of Sulawesi and Sumatra, also host substantial Christian minorities of the indigenous populations.

The incumbent president, Joko Widodo, now finds himself running hard for re-election against the main opposition candidate, Prabowo Subianto, an ex-army general and former son-in-law of the late dictatorial president, Suharto, in what is becoming something of a replay of the 2014 contest.

Five years earlier, Widodo had won the presidency with a modest margin of victory, promising a grand maritime strategy for Indonesia and revitalising the economy via major infrastructure projects. Previously, Widodo had been the governor of the national capital district of Greater Jakarta, and his handpicked successor there, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, was later defeated in the polls – and then, for good measure, tried and convicted on blasphemy charges. (He has only recently been released from prison.)

This year, it seems, the decisive issue will be the candidates’ professed commitment to Islam.

The New York Times reported:

Prabowo and the rest of the opposition evidently learned a lot from Basuki’s downfall. In 2014, they ran an antiquated campaign based on the supposed resurgence of communism and the Indonesian Communist Party, and failed. The Jakarta election has taught them that tapping Muslim values is an effective way to galvanise popular support.”

In his electoral campaign, apparently feeling the growing heat of identity politics, Widodo has decided (or felt forced) to take on Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate. Widodo is sometimes accused of not being religious enough, and Amin is obviously a visibly public practitioner of mainstream Islam. Accordingly, Widodo’s decision is being read as an effort to appeal to (or reassure) Islamic voters on the piety front. Subianto would appear to be more comfortable with his public piety.

Still, critics are increasingly worried that Indonesia’s largely tolerant society is being shaken by a movement towards a more politicised Islam, to the detriment of the religious and ethnic/cultural minorities throughout the country, and the resultant deepening of inter-ethnic tensions. Memories still remain of the violent mass killings in 1965-6, in the wake of an abortive communist coup, or, perhaps, a communist coup aiming at pre-empting a military one, that in the process frequently targeted Chinese all across the country – and that often targeted Christians in small towns as well. And Islam, used as a political force in the country, has had its own difficulties with national unity or the question of the applicability of religious law.

Now, no one is predicting the imminent collapse of the current, largely tolerant political universe of Indonesia. Nevertheless, this turn towards religiosity as a key political identifier – now married to ethnicity in Southeast Asia’s largest nation and the world’s most populous Islamic country – in a country that is an important supplier of many global raw materials including tin, rubber, and palm oil, and an increasingly significant industrial presence and participant in global supply chains, may, in turn, feed greater instabilities.

Meanwhile, in India – the globe’s second most populous nation, a fast-growing economy with an increasing global presence in hot, hi-tech industries, and with an astonishingly complex mix of ethnicities, religions, and traditions – President Narendra Modi is leading his party in the hope of scoring yet another parliamentary majority for the future, especially if it gains the support of some of the smaller and regional parties. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is widely seen by his numerous critics as a disturbingly religious-ethnic chauvinist party, strongly supportive of assertive Hindu nationalism – to the detriment of pretty much everyone else in the country.

In the upcoming election (for the Indian parliament and thus the prime ministership as well), Modi is being challenged by the venerable old Congress Party, now under Rahul Gandhi. This particular Gandhi is the son of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, his grandmother Indira was India’s first female leader, and his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the country’s founding Prime Minister. Congress is thus led by the scion of a Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that had largely led India since 1947.

Historically, it has been a broadly inclusive party (on ethnic, religious, and geographic terms), and when it was the government it was assertively pro-government, ambivalent to anti-free enterprise orientation, and supportive of state intervention at virtually every level in what was often called the “licence raj”.

This was a recognition of the need for economic actors to obtain permits for virtually everything and every step of any commercial and industrial process (thus nurturing a concurrent, persistent backhander culture as a result). As prime minister, Modi has been assertive in peeling back generations of such regulatory weight and in aggressively promoting the country’s industrial capabilities, as well as subtly reconfiguring India’s international profile towards the US and Japan, thus in sharper competition with its great continental rival, China. But his efforts have been underscored by a persistent Hindu ethnic nationalism.

Now, no one sees an India broken into pieces by the impact of another BJP victory. And given the country’s economic growth trajectory and the economic success for many, Modi’s party has to be accorded the electoral favourite. Still, there are worries surging ethnic partisanship (and fears of persecution against religious minorities such as Muslims and Sikhs) will further deepen the fractures and fissures already present in much of India’s public life.

Meanwhile, in Africa, Nigeria was poised to have its election this past weekend – that is, until the country’s electoral commission unexpectedly and pre-emptorily pulled the plug on the count just hours before it was to start – rescheduling it for a week later.

Olayinka Ajala, a conflict analyst from the University of York, explains:

The electoral commission has cited a number of logistical challenges. Apart from issues related to the distribution of electoral materials, it also cited poor weather and the destruction of materials in fires. In the last two weeks, arson attacks have been reported at the electoral commission’s offices in three states (Anambra, Abia and Plateau) which led to the destruction of thousands of card readers, voters cards and other vital electoral materials.

On top of this, the Central Bank of Nigeria, which stores sensitive electoral equipment and material, is said to have been overwhelmed. In the run-up to the poll, ballot papers and electoral registers are normally kept in the vaults of the central bank and distributed within days of the elections. With 15 million new voters since the 2015 elections, it would seem that the electoral commission and the central bank underestimated the scale of the task. On the eve of the elections, vital materials hadn’t been delivered in some states.”

There are lots of theories about why this happened – ranging from the necessary electoral infrastructure being overwhelmed by the growth in voter registrations to a less benign rumour of the need for more time to cook the results a priori – but, regardless, this decision has clearly heightened tensions in the country.

Given Nigeria’s complex ethnic make-up and turbulent political history, it seems little short of amazing that this time around the country’s politics do not seem to have reverted to their traditional north-south division (and its concurrent Islam/Christian split), or the tensions between Igbos in the southwest and the rest. Perhaps this is due to the fact both of the leading candidates are northerners – incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari (and a former general and military ruler) and Atiku Abubakar, previously a deputy to another, earlier president. But even more important may be the fact that most of the most salient issues confronting voters in this Nigerian election – deep, pervasive corruption, inflation, economic malaise, and the continuing security challenges of Boko Haram – all seem to transcend any one region or ethnic group.

Nevertheless, any sense that the eventual electoral outcomes are cooked can serve as the fodder that could embroil Nigeria in the kinds of tensions that eventually spiral down into ethnic and regional rivalries – or worse. Still, it is interesting, even astonishing, to realise that Nigeria’s election – if the results are deemed credible – may be more conducive to a sense of national unity than in states with significantly more entrenched democratic practice and tradition. These results might even provide a demonstration that identity does not have to have an inevitably corrosive effect in even famously fractured societies.

However, both India and Indonesia both may lead in the opposite way, giving further fuel to Fukuyama’s vision that identity – whether ethnic, racial, religious, geographical, and economic, or all of them together – is the wave of the future and that the results from democratic elections can contribute to more, not less, societal tension, strife, and animosity.

Don’t believe that? Just look at how the Trumpian ascendancy has made identity the sine qua non for America’s political life. In all of this, there should be food for thought for South Africa’s political class as they head into the election season. DM

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