| by Laksiri Fernando 

( July 18, 2014, Seydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) The third largest democracy in the world, Indonesia, of around 240 million population and 190 million registered voters, went to presidential elections on 9 June Wednesday and the final results are expected on 22st or 23nd. Reliable sample counts of 80 percent show that Joko Widodo, 53, popularly known as Jokowi, and a ‘political newcomer,’ is heading the elections against the authoritarian former General and hardliner, Prabowo Subianto, 63, and let me add ‘a conservative and a traditionalist.’ 

Indonesia is also the largest Muslim country in the world however mostly with moderate religious temperament because of Abangan traditions in village areas mixed with traditional Hindu and partly Buddhist customs. It is also the biggest economy in Southeast Asia, and with a (monitory) GDP of $ 868 billion stand as the 16th position in the world. Its per capita is closer to present Sri Lanka. Indonesia is a member of G-20 and a founder of ASEAN. 

It’s not merely because of the similarity of per capita incomes or as growing economies that Indonesian example is important for Sri Lanka. From a historical point of view, there were Javaka tribes in Sri Lanka before the Christian era. Contemporarily, Agama (meaning religion in both Bahasa Indonesia and Sinhalese) is important in politics in both countries. However, Indonesia or more precisely Jokowi seems to handle Agama differently, compared to many political hardliners in Sri Lanka, not to speak of the BBS. The example is more important given the juncture in which both countries are facing the challenges of constructing and reconstructing democracy with ethnic harmony, peace and economic justice to the poor.

Past and Present

Indonesia was a Dutch colony and achieved full independence in 1949 which was declared through a national revolution previously in 1945. Sukarno was the undisputed nationalist leader and the first President who deviated from initial democracy for a ‘guided one’ in 1957. ‘Guided democracy’ was his caricature. Following a difficult period thereafter, however, he sided with the communists instead of Islam or the military, to his credit. That was also his demise given the circumstances. 

During 1965-67, through a military counter revolution, Suharto came to power by massacring nearly 500,000 communist party members and supporters. Suharto regime was supported by the US in the context of the Cold War. Suharto’s was a ruthless dictatorship in the country during which East Timor was invaded and annexed (1975). Contrary to the popular misconception, East Timor, now Timor Leste, was never a part of Indonesia or even of the old Majpahit kingdom. 

Indonesia is a complex archipelago with over 13,000 islands and over 100 ethnic groups. The largest ethnic groups are Javanese (42 percent), Sundanese (16 percent), Malay (4 percent), Madurese (3 percent) and others (35 percent). Given this diverse make up, the dominance of one ethnicity over the others is not easy like in Sri Lanka although the Javanese are prominent in economic, social and political life. Although the Chinese are only around 1 percent, their influence is higher than its proportion; a fact which is generally accepted. 

However on religious lines, there is a predominance of Islam with 87 percent being its adherents. There are five other religions recognized in the Constitution, Protestants (7 percent), Catholics (3 percent), Hindu (2 percent), Buddhists (1 percent) and Confucianism even less than one percent. Indonesia is predominantly a Sunni Muslim country (99 percent). 

There is an interesting ideological makeup in Indonesia whether it is actually practiced or not. And that is “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” meaning ‘Unity in Diversity.’ It is inscribed in the Indonesian official emblem. It comes from an old Javanese poem written during the Majpahit kingdom in the 14th century where unity between Hinduism and Buddhism was emphasized. The relevant Stanza was the following. 

Truth of Buddha
Truth of Shiva
Is one
They are different
But they are of the same kind
There is no duality in Truth.

Today, “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” particularly incorporates Islam. The above principle, can easily be translated into religious or ethnic relations in any country. What is required primarily is political will.

It is also interesting how Indonesia has tried to resolve its official language policy in the modern times. It was during the nationalist struggle and more precisely in 1928 that the nationalist leaders decided to rather construct Bahasa Indonesia, as a unifying language of diverse ethnic groups, based on old Malay and mixing other languages. There are borrowed words from Dutch and also English. There are many similar words to Sinhalese (i.e. agama or karya) as well as to Tamil (i.e. apam or roti) in this constructed language.

The above does not mean that Indonesia is a perfect country; not at all. But it means at least it has some policy framework to achieve harmony and peace compared to many other countries.

Election Background

However, the story of Jokowi or the current presidential election might be more interesting to the Sri Lankan readers than the story of Indonesia in general. Indonesia has been going in a democratic direction after the collapse of Suharto’s rule in 1998 but not smoothly. That was also the trigger for independence of East Timor and autonomy struggle for Aceh. This experience undoubtedly highlights the importance of democracy or democratization in resolving ethnic or national questions in any country.

Even after the collapse and replacement of Suharto in 1998 the move towards democracy has been tortuous. The military was maintaining a strong grip on politics through its party Golkar also during Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Presidency (2001-2004) and even the current election is an attempt to return back to the past order of the army generals. Only in 2004 that direct election for the presidency was held and a relatively moderate former General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected and elected again in 2009. He was from the Democratic Party. Unlike Sri Lanka now, Indonesia has a limited two term period for the presidency and one term is only 5 years. This is undoubtedly an admirable feature.

Jokowi contested the presidential elections from the ‘Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle’ (IDP-S) of which Megawati Sukarnoputri is the chairperson. This is a breakaway party from the Indonesian Democratic Party (IDP) which was controlled first by the Suharto administration and then by the security establishment for a long period. Otherwise, the IDP was very much similar to the SLFP in policies and social background. Megawati did the right thing by splitting the party in 1988 to facilitate a democratic transformation in the country and within the party. Yet it has been a difficult task given the social and religious conservatism in society and the polity. Megawati herself lost elections to Yudhoyono in 2004.

Who is Jokowi?

Jokowi however is different or believed to be different. He comes from a common background, just a plebian unlike his opponent Prabowo who is a typical patrician. Jokowi is popularly called ‘Indonesian Obama’ because of his physical appearance and relaxed style of campaigning. That attribution or nickname is not a major issue in Indonesia.

Jokowi has come almost from nowhere. He came into politics only in 2005 to contest the Mayor position in Solo (Surakarta) from the IDP-S and won with his running mate, a Catholic. Before that he was just a small time furniture entrepreneur. By education, he is an agricultural engineering graduate. Then he contested the Governor position of Jakarta in 2012 and again won. This time his running mate was a Chinese. This was his way of symbolizing Bhinneka Tunggal Ika.

He is considered a ‘new’ and a ‘clean’ leader. His opponent, Prabowo, on the contrary, has an infamous record of human rights violations as the Special Force Commander of the Indonesian military before 1988. He is almost one generation older to Jokowi with family and business connections. He was married to the daughter of Suharto although now separated. Prabowo himself come from a hierarchical family with his brother as a billionaire and his main financier. There are of course others.

Jokowi is different. When he became the Mayor of Solo, in his own home town, he prohibited any of his family members biding for contracts. He has run a clean administration with innovation and novelty. It was the same after he became the Governor of Jakarta. He has a reputation as a punya gaye (guy) a can-do person. He is also a populist. Apart from his pro-poor policies, he is famous for his blusukans. He makes surprise visits to people’s homes, market places and factories to inquire about people’s grievances and their views about policies. This has never appeared as fraudulent engagement like what some of our politicians indulge in.

Jokowi has a major appeal among the youth and that has been his major strength even during this presidential campaign. He is a popular name in the social media. He is also a non-violent, non-aggressive and a pragmatic person. He talks in terms of long term ideals and aspirations apart from practically putting into practice pro-poor and innovative policies. In his last campaign rally in Jakarta he has said “We gather here as part of a democracy that ensures participation of all people in determining the nation’s future, to respect human rights, fight for justice and maintain plurality and peace.”

What is the Lesson?

Let me sum up this article without prolonging. What is the lesson for Sri Lanka in view of the forthcoming presidential election? Can we find a Jokowi in Sri Lanka? No, that is not the main point or conclusion that I try to highlight. Anyway, it might be too late to find or promote a ‘Jokowi’ from the broader opposition now. Even our leaders are not inclined to do so except perhaps the JVP. The JVP however is not yet a broad based party and its past undoubtedly is an inhibition to shoulder that national responsibility.

The lesson is about populism that I try to highlight. Everyone knows that the Rajapaksas or particularly the President Rajapaksa is almost a textbook personification of populist politics in Sri Lanka. But his populism has now gone sour. There are always risks of populism. It can easily go for chauvinism, like in the present case, and even for fascism. Perhaps that danger even might emerge in the future. However that is not a reason to reject populism altogether.

Some people might believe that populism can be generated only through nationalism or still worse ethno nationalism. That is also not correct. Jokowi has abundantly proved the opposite or other alternatives. By the way he was also not a single issue candidate. He has inspired people against Prabowo through a range of issues and pro-poor and populist economic policies and most importantly relating his leadership to the people directly. This can be done by a leader, this can be done by a party, and this can also be done by a coalition or a United Front.

Facing a populist challenge from the government there can be a tendency on the part of the opposition to reject populism and embrace elitism. That is what I have observed so far, particularly from some of the intellectual critiques against the Rajapaksa regime. This is defeatist and dangerous for democracy. Instead of criticizing the government or governance for various ills in society, there is also a tendency to castigate the people.

Why populism? Populism is not always evil. The foundation of populism, like democracy is demos or the people. Without inspiring people, democracy or democracy movements cannot be built. But there can be dangers too. Let me quote Francisco Panizza (Populism and the Mirror of Democracy) on this point.

In modern global society, populism raises uncomfortable questions about those who want to appropriate the empty site of power, but also about those who would like to subordinate politics to technocratic reason and dictates of the market.

By raising awkward questions about modern forms of democracy, and often representing the ugly face of people, populism is neither the highest form of democracy nor its enemy, but a mirror in which democracy can contemplate itself, warts and all, and find out what it is about and what it is lacking.” (p.30).

I might only add to Panizza that populism is not only a ‘mirror’ but also can be a ‘mold’ of democracy. Like in, or more than, Indonesia, democratic space is still available in Sri Lanka. Any oppositional movement should use that framework like Jokowi has been using strictly peacefully. ‘Arab Spring’ is not a model for Sri Lanka, but Indonesia might be without exaggerating the Jokowi example. The opposition or any segment of it should not be a cat’s paw for any foreign power, knowingly or unknowingly. The temptations can be high. International solidarity from the global civil society is what might be needed and not assistance from foreign powers. Those who are interested in ‘Populism’ further may read Ernesto Laclau, particularly his On Populist Reason (2005).

ARCHIVES FROM AUGUST 2007 TO JANUARY 2015