A tough political year has passed, a tougher time ahead

Thursday, 15 Feb 2018
A tough political year has passed, a tougher time ahead
Anti Ahok: Thousands of people rallied in Jakarta in November, 2016, demanding the arrest of then Jakarta governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who had been accused of blasphemy against Muslims. JP/Dhoni Setiawan

Without a doubt, 2017 was a really tough year, politically speaking. It sent us mixed images of how far we have progressed in continuing democratic political reforms. There are a number of highlights that one can gather from political events, the impact of which will be felt until next year.


First, the 2017 Jakarta election was certainly a political event that will haunt the country for some time to come. It might be the first kind of election in which — as represented by the approval rating measured by various opinion polls up until before voting day — voters thought that the incumbent, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, performed well in governing the capital city, but said no-thanks to his reelection bid.


Ahok was accused of something unrelated to his governing skills: blaspheming Islam for inadvertently misinterpreting a verse of the Quran. From then on, he became a punching bag for his political opponents. To make matters worse, Ahok is a double minority within the Indonesian social context as a Christian Indonesian of Chinese descent. He lost the election and was later sentenced to two years in prison in the blasphemy case.


There are deeper consequences of the 2017 Jakarta election. First, it brought up a perennial issue that the country has been trying to grapple with since day one of the republic: managing the relationship between the state and religion. In one way or another, Islamic values will surely influence the country’s political landscape. However, the principles of citizenship is what the founding fathers and mothers emphasized in the Constitution, that every citizen is equal before the law, has the right to vote and to be elected for public office.


The 2017 Jakarta election was an ugly one in the sense that Ahok’s right to be elected was in essence denied by way of various callings, through various banners, sermons or other occasions, for not voting for a non-Muslim Indonesian as a leader.


The saddest part was that none of the other candidates were brave enough to confront their supporters who subscribed to those calls, to remind them that it was not a fair way to win an election. Even now that Ahok has lost the election and is imprisoned, many of his political opponents continue to criticize him as if they beating a dead horse.


Apparently, Ahok’s adversaries forget to view him from the Islamic perspective in that he is akin a prisoner they defeated in battle. Islam teaches its believers to treat defeated opponents well and protect their dignity.


Certainly, the gubernatorial election has taken the best out of Jakartans. However, it should force us to re-think how we define moderate Islam in Indonesia. My hypothesis is if we use a scale of one to 10 for Islam-based groups, with one being the most conservative, such as groups like the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), and 10 for being the most liberal, such as the Islamic Liberal Network (JIL), by definition, the moderates should be in the middle of the scale, at five.


However, it seems we have wrongly equated the moderates with those at number 10, who as a matter of fact, are the most liberal and the polar opposite of the most conservative at number one.


I would assume that most Indonesian Muslims are at three, four and five on the scale, meaning that they are more open to the narratives of the conservatives than of the liberals. This, however, does not necessarily mean they are in agreement with the conservatives.


The task ahead will be to define the properties of those in the middle, be those at three-four-five or five-six-seven on the scale. Only then can we understand the nature of the moderates and formulate necessary policies to find the right balance between the state and religion in Indonesia.


Second, the street movements that emerged during and after the Jakarta election have certainly put President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to the test. Up until November last year, he had been able to consolidate his power in a formal political sense. The President was able to bring the Golkar Party and National Mandate Party (PAN) into his coalition camp, forcing the opposition to crumble and the ruling coalition to hold the outright majority in the House of Representatives. In other words, the President finally got the upper hand in the formal political battle.


Yet, the massive “Defend Islam” movement is something that is new to the President’s playbook. The challenge is now coming from groups within the society. The current government is walking on a thin line at the risk of being seen as unfriendly to Islam. Worse, politics is now taken out of the legislative building and moving back onto the streets. While this seems to be a temporary phenomenon due to the elections, it certainly points to the inability of our political parties to capture the energy of the electorates, which brings me to the night highlight of 2017.


Various opinion polls throughout 2017 found that most Indonesians did not trust political parties, due to mega corruption cases involving their members. These include the e-ID graft case allegedly involving Setya Novanto, the former House speaker and then Golkar chairman.


Corruption has also plagued Islamic parties, which used to be perceived as clean.

It is not surprising that people now turn their attention to political movements outside the political parties. Instead of irresponsibly riding the waves of mass movements outside the legislative building to score political gains, political parties actually hold the ultimate responsibility to reform themselves and regain the trust of their constituents.


The Setya case is a litmus test for our judiciary and the democratic, political institutionalization of Golkar and of our reformed political system. Nevertheless, the party should be given particular attention at this point in time. As a political party, Golkar still has a lot to offer Indonesian politics.


Golkar is still the most institutionalized political party. Although it failed to perform well in most executive elections (for presidents, governors, mayors or regents), it has somehow been doing well in the legislative elections both at the national and local levels since 1999.


As for the party’s leadership, it remains an open platform in the sense that party members are relatively free to compete for the chairmanship.


It is hard to imagine today that someone with no familial relations to Sukarno, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Prabowo Subianto or Amien Rais will be able to take the helms of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the Democratic Party, Gerindra or the National Mandate Party (PAN).


It is now a new era for Golkar — under the new leadership of Airlangga Hartanto — to regain the trust it once had, heal its wounded image as a result of Setya’s case, and march into the political year of 2018 with new optimism.


The third highlight of 2017 saw Jokowi enter its third year in power. Various opinion polls throughout the year have found that his approval and electability ratings remain the highest compared to other possible presidential candidates for the 2019 election.


Public approval of the Jokowi-Jusuf Kalla government has continued to increase since 2014. A national public opinion survey conducted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in August revealed that 68.3 percent respondents said that they were satisfied with the government’s performance. The figure is well above the ratings recorded in previous surveys: 66.5 percent and 50.6 percent in 2016 and 2015, respectively.


The government’s infrastructure projects across the country seem to be a major driver for Jokowi’s rising public approval. However, despite the overall increase, respondents observed that they had not seen many significant changes in the economic sector in 2017, both at the household and national levels, compared to what they experienced with the previous government.


So, we are seeing a situation in which the President enjoys high approval and electability ratings from electorates who felt they had not seen much change in their economic situation.


The plausible explanation for this seemingly contradictory finding is that Jokowi still enjoys a very high level of trust from the electorates. This is something that eludes other politicians.


It is expected that in the 2019 presidential election, Jokowi and Prabowo will race against each other one more time. The same CSIS survey found that Jokowi’s electability has reached 50.9 percent. Regardless, the percentage has yet to be a safe level for an incumbent.


However, the electability level of Prabowo has stagnated from one survey to another. Therefore, while the upcoming 2019 election might be a re-run of the 2014 election, Jokowi is in a slightly better position as the incumbent, with all sticks and carrots at his disposal.


Lastly, nevertheless, there will be more than 170 regional elections in 2018 to elect governors, regents, and mayors. Some of these elections will take place in large and politically important provinces that contribute large numbers of seats to the House, including West Java, Central Java, East Java, North Sumatra and South Sulawesi provinces.


Winning in these provinces will mean a higher chance of winning the seats in the 2019 legislative election. Therefore, these 2018 local elections will be a significant factor to gauge all political parties’ readiness for the 2019 election.


However, it seems that the pressure is more on the ruling PDI-P. Unlike the situation prior to the 2014 legislative and presidential elections, the PDI-P now needs to put extra effort into the upcoming 2018 local elections.


The PDI-P started off well in 2012 by surprisingly winning the Jakarta gubernatorial election that elevated Jokowi and Ahok to the national political stage. At that time, for a reminder, the PDI-P had been out of power for 10 years.


The party had decided to stay outside of the SBY government and consistently remained an opposition party with all the consequences. The 2012 Jakarta election certainly was a political momentum that energized the party base and gained it new supporters.


Following the 2012 Jakarta election, there were two important gubernatorial elections in West Java and North Sumatra. The PDI-P’s tickets lost in these elections, but they were underdogs who were able to come second in the race by a very thin margin.


The PDI-P then also won the gubernatorial election in Central Java. In other words, prior to the 2014 legislative and presidential elections, the trend was positive and the political momentum was on the PDI-P’s side.


Meanwhile, in the 2017 local elections, the PDI-P lost in some large and electorally important provinces, including Jakarta and Banten. Therefore, the stake is higher for the PDI-P in the upcoming 2018 local elections to keep the political momentum on its side.   


This article also appeared on The Jakarta Post's Outlook 2018.