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Response to Tim Lindsey’s <br> “Retreat from Democracy?”

Response to Tim Lindsey’s
“Retreat from Democracy?”


Tim Lindsey’s essay presents a bleak future for Indonesian liberal democracy, which he claims is in “retreat”, with a possible return to what has been labelled the “Neo New Order”. He argues that there is growing dissent among the dominant Muslim groups in Indonesia, and predicts a fading away of the Indonesian concept of “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” – unity in diversity, an ideology that has held sway in this country since it was born, two years after Reformasi. He argues that, ironically, growing intolerance is facilitated by the democratic principles of freedom of speech and freedom of association.

While not denying any of the points Lindsey makes, I see his article as a simplification of the current situation in Indonesia, in three key ways.

First, his analysis tends to be Jakarta-centric. While the political reality in Jakarta is indeed too important to ignore, the reality outside Jakarta challenges a monolithic perspective, according to which there is a single movement to defend conservative Islam, with Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) and a loose coalition of Islamist groups from National Movement to Guard the MUI Fatwa (GNPF-MUI) as its main supporters. Second, Lindsey tends to ignore the connection between the rise of Islamic conservatism and economic development – namely, the increase in economic inequality, an important factor when analysing Jakarta’s urban poor. Third, while Muslim citizens have been among the supporters of this movement, there is also a civil-society movement that has largely ignored identity politics, and since the 2017 Jakarta election has focused on campaigning for policies regarding housing and land security.

Let me unpack these three points. First, to many analysts and political pundits, what happens in Java, and specifically Jakarta, seems to represent Indonesia as a whole. This is understandable, as almost 60 per cent of the Indonesian population lives in Java. This matters a lot electorally. In addition, all of the largest media organisations in Indonesia are based in Jakarta. The island and its capital have always been key to understanding Indonesia. But to focus solely on Jakarta is misleading, as Indonesia is large and diverse, and its political realities change outside Jakarta. For example, the leading coalition for the 2019 presidential election – Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDIP), the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, and Gerakan Indonesia Raya (Gerindra), which competed fiercely in the 2014 presidential election and in Jakarta and West Java in the last gubernatorial election, was in coalition during the 2018 local elections in forty-eight regions. Another example is FPI, which is popular in Jakarta only but not in the regions. They are even banned in Pontianak of West Kalimantan. At the individual level, Greg Fealy’s reportage during the mass rally in Jakarta known as “Defending Islam Action III” shows that not all of the participants who attended were supporters of the same agenda.

Second, there has been a sharp increase in inequality in Indonesia, which also contributes to this recent surge of Islamic conservatism. Although data from the Indonesian Central Bureau of Statistics (Badan Pusat Statistik) has shown a decrease in the national poverty rate from 12.5 per cent in 2011 to 9.8 per cent in 2018 – a figure claimed to be the lowest in this country’s history – increased inequality is a new feature of Indonesia’s economy: the total wealth of the four richest Indonesians is equal to that of the poorest 100 million. The government’s infrastructure plan allocates more than US$500 billion or IDR6000 trillion (almost 430 times the budget of the poorest province of Papua) to infrastructure projects to help alleviate this wealth divide, but the plan has not yet had any substantial effect.

The inequality is most visible in the urban context, such as in Jakarta. The city’s policies towards the poor have been harsh, with thousands of poor families forcibly removed from slums in a wave of evictions in 2015 and 2016. Shortly after these evictions, FPI offered shelter and basic amenities to the victims. No other political parties came to help. Ian Wilson’s research in Jakarta shows that rising inequality contributes to rising conservatism among the urban poor who are Muslim.

Third, due to this stark inequality, the majority of the urban poor supported a candidate during the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election who had no plans for evictions. This community has been the victim of evictions and so prioritises securing housing rights over promoting Islamic identity on their political agenda, despite being Muslim. This movement among the urban poor demanding improved access to housing forms part of a loose coalition with non-government organisations, architects and academics, and this coalition operates beyond economic and class divisions. They have worked collaboratively beyond their various cultural and religious identities. Although their influence remains limited among Indonesian civil movements, this effort shows how identity politics can matter less than pragmatic politics.

Analysis of rising Islamic conservatism in Indonesia should take into account the existing economic divide and various social movements in Jakarta, as well as a view from the local level, beyond Jakarta. This approach would offer a more nuanced and complete understanding of the “retreat from democracy”. While Lindsey makes many valid points in his article, to suggest there is one singular pattern across Indonesian politics, and to predict the rise of and return to the New Order, denies the heterogeneity of Indonesian politics.

Amalinda Savirani is a lecturer in the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the Universitas Gadjah Mada in Indonesia.


This is correspondence to Australian Foreign Affairs 3: Australia and Indonesia. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.

This correspondence is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 4: Defending Australia.