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INSIGHT: Overtaking right-wing populism in Indonesia?

Jakarta | Fri, March 10, 2017 | 08:29 am
INSIGHT: Overtaking right-wing populism in Indonesia? Thousands of anti-Ahok Muslims participate in a protest on Jl. Merdeka Timur in Jakarta on Oct. 14. (JP/Seto Wardhana)

With the vote for Donald Trump and Brexit, it is common knowledge that increasingly large numbers of people affected by the ills of unregulated globalization are drawn to populist right wing nationalism rather than mainstream liberalism and social democracy.

This challenge applies to the Global South too. In India, for example, the Hindu fundamentalists’ identity politics is thriving along with their own private provisioning of social services and neo-liberal oriented economic policies, thus nurturing a local version of the American dream.

In the Philippines, a president was elected by promising jobs for the poor and deals with the Maoists. In Brazil, the combination of neo-liberalism and welfare programs lost popular trust in face of shrinking commodity prices, poor governance and inability to scale up local democratic participation.

Indonesia is no exception. In 2014, Prabowo Subianto was almost “making a Trump” in the presidential elections. Recently, rivals of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his allied Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama managed to get huge numbers of people out in the streets and to undermine Ahok’s support in the gubernatorial elections. The populist method was to combine antagonistic Muslim identity politics and urban poor people’s resentment against evictions. By April, right wing populism may well be victorious in the runoff election.

In such situations, is there an alternative?

According to a recent international study about the challenges of reinventing social democratic development (directed by Törnquist and John Harriss, published by NIAS-Press), the democratic movements that stood tall against European Nazis and fascists in the 1930s are now hampered by the globalization of uneven development.

This undermines regulations, increases inequalities, informalizes labor relations and weakens democratic organization and representation. Worst, many people at the downside of uneven development find no alternative but to reject the establishment.

Yet, the study concludes, there are also positive signs of new counter movements of labor and disenchanted middle classes, for decent jobs and uncorrupted welfare states. Such alliances stand a chance of affecting public polices when elitist democracy is backsliding and leaders must gather wider popular support to win elections.

Actually, Indonesia seemed to be a good example. Jokowi’s road to power began by his ability to gather massive support in Surakarta, Central Java, for inclusive urban development. This was much thanks to negotiations with civil society organizations (CSOs) and popular organizations among the poor. In Jakarta, moreover, progressive politicians could enact the universal public health scheme thanks to inputs and backing from a broad alliance of unions, popular groups and CSOs.

Meanwhile, Jokowi and Ahok were successively elected governors, not least with the support of popular groups and CSOs. Once in office, minimum wages were increased, public services and welfare were improved; and there were invitations to unions, among others, to negotiate further advances. But why were these advances not followed up?

According to our new study, Dilemmas of Populist Transactionalism there have been five major problems. One, the cooperation with popular groups presupposed that the politicians realized the necessity of fostering sustainable and inclusive development to win elections.

In Surakarta, Jokowi understood this, but later on in Jakarta Ahok thought perhaps that it was enough to please the middle classes. This paved the way for the right wing populists to supplement aggressive religious identity politics by general promises to urban poor to avoid evictions.

Two, it was difficult to scaleup Jokowi’s inclusive Surakarta model to Jakarta where the popular organizations are fragmented and dominant social blocks are entrenched. Popular organizations could have been fostered, but time was short; and after the presidential election, Jokowi was preoccupied with other problems.

Three, there were few attempts to continue the successful struggle for the national health scheme with campaigns for much needed additional welfare reforms, so the broad alliance lost steam. Four, there were neither any demands from below, or an enlightened plan from above, to institutionalize democratic participation in planning of welfare and development by crucial interest organizations, including among unions, domestic workers, urban poor and employers. Hence, the governors’ proposals to discuss other issues but wages become unviable.

The movements turned to different patrons in the 2014 presidential election. Popular groups and politicians reversed to transactional populism of individual horse-trading.

Fifth, as this did not provide sufficient backing for progressive policies, the new president and Jakarta governor retreated and resorted to negotiations with the dominant block of political and economic elites.

All this was about political priorities. It was not bound to happen. Hence it can be altered.

Enlightened Indonesian reformists may just as several liberal and social democrats elsewhere realize that they cannot ignore those who do not benefit from the uneven development without losing out to leaders like Trump. If so, there must be progressive alternatives to right-wing populism.

Moreover, such inclusive alternatives call for more solid ground than what can be offered by supposedly unmediated linkages between charismatic leaders and the “floating mass.” This is because comprehensive policies towards an inclusive development strategy based on productive welfare programs require facilitation of negotiations between democratic citizen groups and interest organizations among labor, middle classes and employers.

This is hard. But by thus transforming the playing field, enlightened leaders, CSOs and popular groups may overtake right wing populism. Time is short, but signals can be sent, steps can be taken and policies can be initiated.


Olle Törnquist, a professor of political science at the University of Oslo and Luky Djani, a PhD candidate at Murdoch University, Perth, are co-authors of Dilemmas of Populist Transactionalism ( 2017 ) with activist Osmar Tanjung.


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