Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: Indonesian Presidential Politics Begins to Heat Up 18 Months before Elections

By Geoffrey Hartman, Fellow, Southeast Asia Program (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS

Indonesia’s April 2019 general elections are still 18 months away, but the potential challengers to incumbent president Joko Widodo—popularly known as “Jokowi”—are beginning to emerge and hone their campaign narratives. Candidates for the 2019 presidential election will not be officially announced until next September, but the jockeying between likely contenders is already impacting Indonesia’s domestic stability and foreign policy. 

Jakarta’s new governor, Anies Baswedan, was the latest to tip his hand in an October 16 inaugural speech that was seen as an attempt to boost the national profile of a politician rumored to hold presidential ambitions. The speech was criticized by some as divisive for its references to colonial-era oppression and the need for native Indonesians to be “masters in our own country,” which was interpreted as targeting ethnic Chinese-Indonesians. His comments followed a racially and religiously charged April election that saw Baswedan defeat Chinese-Christian former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also known as “Ahok”). 

Indonesian armed forces commander Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo has also engaged in divisive posturing that seems intended to boost his national profile for a possible presidential run. Gatot has raised the specter of a resurgence by the long-defunct Indonesian Communist Party, and in September he ordered military screenings of a Suharto-era propaganda film about the failed 1965 coup that led to mass killings of suspected communists in Indonesia. Gatot also threatened the Indonesian police and state intelligence agency in a September 22 speech, and on October 23 attempted to turn a delayed flight to the United States into an international incident in a fashion reminiscent of his January suspension of military ties with Australia over offensive language teaching materials. 

Both Baswedan and Gatot will be looking for ways to weaken Jokowi, but they are also competing against each other. Jokowi won an important victory in July when the Indonesian legislature maintained a high eligibility threshold for presidential candidates in the next election. Candidates must have the backing of a party or coalition that controls 20 percent of the seats in the legislature or that won 25 percent of the vote in the last legislative elections, a threshold that would allow for only two presidential candidates if current political coalitions hold. 

Prabowo Subianto, who was defeated by Jokowi in the 2014 presidential election and now leads the opposition coalition, remains the odds-on favorite to face Jokowi in a rematch. But Prabowo may have created a threat to his own presidential hopes by backing Baswedan in his campaign to become Jakarta governor. It would not be the first time that one of Prabowo’s protégés challenged him. Jokowi himself had Prabowo’s backing in his successful campaign for Jakarta governor in 2012 before defeating Prabowo for the presidency two years later. 

The conventional wisdom emerging from Baswedan’s defeat of Ahok is that rising intolerance in Indonesia makes courting conservative Islamic voters a path to victory. Baswedan, an Islamic intellectual before entering politics, is better suited to enact such a strategy than Prabowo, who, despite a history of opportunistically using hardline Islamist groups for political purposes, lacks Islamic credentials and has Christian family members. Jokowi—a Javanese Muslim—is unlikely to be susceptible to attacks on his race and religion in the way that the Chinese-Christian Ahok was, however, and in fact successfully headed off politically motivated rumors that he was secretly Chinese or Christian in the 2014 campaign. 

The lack of success in attacking Jokowi on Islam may explain the puzzling return of anti-communist rhetoric in Indonesian politics, which Gatot apparently believes will allow him to succeed in politics where his predecessor, Gen. Moeldoko, failed in 2014. Gatot’s quixotic campaign seems less likely to gain traction than that of Baswedan, however, as there is little to suggest that appealing to anti-communist fears is an effective political tactic in today’s Indonesia. Indonesia’s communists were destroyed over 50 years ago, and a September 29 survey showed that nearly 87 percent of Indonesian respondents do not believe there is a revival of the Indonesian Communist Party

While Baswedan courts Islamic conservatives and Gatot appeals to a declining demographic of New Order reactionaries, Prabowo seems likely to return to his appeal as a populist and nationalist strongman who can fix a corrupt system. This narrative wasn’t quite enough to defeat the fresh-faced avatar of change that Jokowi represented in 2014, but the realities of governing and the compromises Jokowi has made to succeed in Indonesia’s oligarchic political scene will make it difficult for him to run as an anti-establishment candidate again. Jokowi seems to recognize this, and has been positioning himself as a staunch nationalist and defender of the state ideology of Pancasila.

Jokowi remains popular—a September poll put his approval rating at 68 percent—but desire for change will build if he cannot deliver on his reform promises, especially improving Indonesia’s economy. But continued economic progress may not be easy to achieve, and Indonesia’s steady 5 percent annual GDP growth under Jokowi has lagged behind that of other emerging economies in Southeast Asia. Jokowi’s administration has already undertaken relatively simple economic reforms like ending government fuel subsidies and executing a tax amnesty, and it will be difficult to advance more complex reforms in the face of resistance from Indonesia’s powerful vested interests, particularly in the legislature. For all the discussion of growing Islamic conservatism, the real threat to Jokowi’s political future is disillusionment with his ability to successfully implement his reform agenda and increase the prosperity of the average Indonesian, which could lead voters to turn to Prabowo or another strongman to force through the change they desire. 

Policymakers in Washington should be aware that political dynamics in Indonesia over the next 18 months will make relations with Southeast Asia’s largest country even more thorny than usual, and should be wary of playing into attempts to use the United States as a punching bag to boost the nationalist credentials of presidential hopefuls. Thankfully, Indonesia’s democracy remains the most robust in the region, which should allow the United States to remain safely above the fray and avoid the accusations of foreign interference that come when it is necessary to monitor the basic freedom and fairness of elections.

Geoffrey Hartman is a fellow with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

Biweekly Update

Singapore prime minister visits Washington 
Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong visited Washington on October 22-26 for meetings with President Donald Trump, cabinet secretaries, and key congressional leaders. At the White House, Lee and Trump witnessed the signing of a deal worth $14 billion between Singapore Airlines and Boeing to purchase 39 aircraft. The two leaders also discussed North Korea, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, coalition efforts to counter the Islamic State, and the strong commercial relationship and close and long-standing defense ties between their two countries. Following the meeting, Trump praised U.S.-Singapore ties, saying that “our friendship has never been stronger than it is right now.”

Philippine military kills Islamic State-linked militant leaders in Marawi City 
Philippine military officials on October 16 announced the deaths of Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute, top leaders of Islamic State-affiliated militants battling government security forces in Marawi City. The killing of Hapilon, the emir of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia, marks the climax of the five-month-long Marawi siege, which has sparked fears of a resurgence of jihadist movements in Southeast Asia. Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana on October 23 announced the termination of combat operations in Marawi, and affirmed Manila’s desire to cooperate with Southeast Asian nations in addressing potential security threats in the region.

U.S. ends travel waivers for Myanmar military officers for role in Rohingya crisis 
The U.S. State Department said on October 23 that it had ended travel waivers that allowed current and former Myanmar military officers to visit the United States and was exploring further economic actions against those responsible for atrocities against Rohingya Muslims that have prompted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee the country. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in an October 18 speech at CSIS said the United States held Myanmar’s military leadership accountable for the humanitarian crisis. In a statement, the State Department called on the Myanmar government and armed forces to “take immediate action to ensure peace and security; implement commitments to ensure humanitarian access to communities in desperate need; facilitate the safe and voluntary return of those who have fled or been displaced; and address the root causes of discrimination against the Rohingya.” 

U.S. officials apologize after Indonesian military chief claims denial of entry to U.S. 
The interim chargé d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta on October 23 issued an apology after Indonesian armed forces commander Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo alleged that he was denied entry to the United States. Gatot, who was scheduled to travel to the United States on October 21 for a conference on countering violent extremism, claims he was in the process of boarding a flight to Washington when he was notified that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency had denied his entry. Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi on October 23 said that she had requested clarification about the incident from the U.S. State Department. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on October 24 said that Gatot had been warned that his travel to the United States might be delayed due to unspecified security protocols and that he chose not to travel after being rebooked on a later flight. The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta on October 25 said that the delay was caused by an administrative error and that there are no restrictions on Gatot’s travel to the United States.

U.S. State Department declassifies documents on 1965 killings in Indonesia 
The U.S. State Department on October 17 declassified diplomatic cables that shed light on the 1965 mass killings in Indonesia, revealing U.S. knowledge of and support for the anti-communist campaign. The cables—sent by U.S. diplomatic facilities in Indonesia between 1964 and 1968—show that U.S. officials had detailed knowledge of the Indonesian army’s purge of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), including records of which PKI leaders had been jailed or killed. The cables also highlighted the involvement of Indonesia's Islamic organizations in identifying and executing alleged communists. Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Wiranto on October 18 downplayed the significance of the declassified documents, saying that their contents were difficult to corroborate.

Jakarta governor faces controversy over inaugural speech 
Newly inaugurated Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan on October 16 sparked controversy with a speech that contained what some criticized as racially divisive language, stoking continued ethic and religious tensions in the city. During the speech, Baswedan implored Indonesia’s “pribumi”—a term for native Indonesians that excludes minority groups, particularly Chinese-Indonesians—to become “masters in our own country.” Baswedan has faced criticism over the past year for his overtures toward hardline Islamic activists, many of whom are staunchly anti-Chinese. The term “pribumi” has largely fallen out favor among Indonesians, following a 1998 presidential instruction that discouraged its use in government statements and policies.

Malaysian attorney general forms task force to investigate anti-corruption chief 
Malaysian attorney general Mohamed Apandi Ali on October 16 formed a task force to investigate Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) chief Dzulkifli Ahmad, who is accused of engaging in an extramarital affair following the release of a viral video purportedly depicting him traveling with a married woman. Dzulkifli on October 17 denounced the allegations and calls for his resignation as a smear campaign designed to discredit the MACC’s anti-corruption efforts. The MACC has in the past year investigated several high-profile cases, including the alleged embezzlement of $3.5 billion from the Rural and Regional Development Ministry. Committing adultery with a married woman is a criminal offense in Malaysia and carries a sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment.

Timor-Leste, Australia agree to draft maritime border treaty 
The Permanent Court of Arbitration on October 15 revealed that Timor-Leste and Australia have agreed on a draft treaty delimiting their maritime boundary in confidential talks in The Hague. The draft treaty also addresses the status of the Greater Sunrise gas field and is expected to open “a pathway to the development of the resource, and the sharing of the resulting revenue.” If approved by both governments, the new treaty will replace the Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea treaty, the validity of which has been disputed by the two countries.

Cambodia set to redistribute opposition party’s parliamentary seats 
Cambodia’s National Assembly on October 16 amended the Law on Political Parties to pave the way for redistribution of the 55 parliamentary seats held by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The amended law stipulates that if a party is dissolved, all its seats in the parliament will be revoked and redistributed to other parties. The Cambodian government on October 6 filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court demanding the dissolution of the CNRP on treason charges, but the court has yet to rule on the case. Party leader Kem Sokha has been imprisoned on treason charges for allegedly trying to topple the government, and many of the CNRP’s members of parliament have fled the country.

Son of former Thai prime minister charged with money-laundering 
The Thai Department of Special Investigations on October 18 announced that Panthongtae Shinawatra, the only son of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, had been charged with money-laundering. The department revealed that Panthongtae had turned himself in on October 17, but had been released since no warrant had been issued for his arrest. Panthongtae has denied the charges, which allege that he received 10 million baht (roughly $300,000) in 2004 that could be traced back to fraudulent loans issued by state-owned Krungthai Bank.


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