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Jokowi’s power play

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo’s decree on Wednesday banning organisations that do not support the state ideology of ‘Pancasila’ (Five Principles) has sparked strong protest from both human rights and Islamist groups in Indonesia and sparked some alarm abroad. It’s the first time such a presidential decree has been issued since Indonesia’s hard-line leader Suharto was forced to resign the presidency in 1998.

President Joko Widodo – known as ‘Jokowi’ – issued the decree following Islamist rioting against the candidature of Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (‘Ahok’) for re-election late last year. The decree, which is a unilateral decision which can be applied to any organization, was widely seen as targeting the fundamentalist religious organizations Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (Indonesian Liberation Party, HTI) and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

The FPI has been active in Indonesia since just after the fall of Suharto in 1998 and is notorious for its mob rampages against bars, nightclubs, Christian churches and against non-mainstream Islamic organisations. The HTI is not known for violence but advocates an austere form of Islam closely related to the Salafi interpretation of Sunni Islam that is predominant in Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states and which informs more violent versions of Sunni Islam.

Opposition to the presidential decree coming from human rights groups reflect concern that such a power could be used against any organization seen to be opposed to Jokowi’s fragile, sometimes faltering presidency. Islamist groups see the power being specifically aimed at them, limiting the freedoms they have enjoyed since the end of Indonesia’s Suharto era.

Of particular concern is Jokowi’s invoking of the national ideology. Under Suharto, invoking the malleable five principles of ‘Pancasila’ was widely interpreted as a means of silencing dissent.

Pancasila’s five principles include recognizing a single god, justice, state unity, representative democracy and social justice. Jokowi invoked state unity in his decree, implying that Islamist organisations were pitting groups within the state against each other.

Indonesia has long had a reputation for its ‘tolerant’ form of Islam. This has, however, been a blind for a more fundamentalist or militant form of Islam that has continued to surface since the days of Dutch colonialism.

Upon independence, a group of Indonesian nationalists argued that Indonesia should become a formally Islamic state. Their legacy is a group of political parties that took around 25 per cent of the vote in the 2014 national elections.

Indonesia has also been heir to a tiny but more militant form of Islamism, manifested more recently as the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah and its successor Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT). JAT has pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

More broadly, too, there has been a shift in Indonesian civil society towards Islam, with more Indonesians becoming more overtly observant of Islam than in the past. In part, this reflects Saudi and related funding of Indonesian mosques and Islamic boarding schools, with the related adoption of a more Salafi understanding of Islam.

Jokowi’s hard line, however, is only in part a response to the rise of Indonesia’s more fundamentalist form of Islam. It is also part of a power play among the country’s elites, a group of which intend to push Jokowi from office, possible before the end of his first term as president in 2019.

It was this anti-Jokowi group that was said to be behind the mass demonstrations and riot in Jakarta late last year. While the target was ostensibly the Chinese Christian Governor, Ahok, the protest was also seen as attacking Jokowi, given that Ahok had been his deputy and successor when Jokowi resigned as Jakarta Governor to run for the presidency.     

Those demonstrations were quelled, but only by a show of force from Indonesian military chief General Gatot Nurmantyo. General Gatot demonstrated Jokowi’s weakness by unilaterally suspending military cooperation with Australia early this year, a move only later overturned with some difficulty by Jokowi.

Jokowi quickly abandoned Ahok, his former political ally, who lost the election and was subsequently jailed for two years for ‘blasphemy’. But the attack against Ahok sent a clear message that Jokowi was also vulnerable.

The man widely identified as being behind last year’s protests was Jokowi’s former presidential opponent, Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo, a former son-in-law of then President Suharto, is also a former army general and was leader of the military’s ‘green’, or Islamic, faction in a show-down with the nationalist ‘red and white’ faction around the time of Suharto’s resignation from the presidency.

Prabowo lost the intra-military contest and his subsequent bids for Indonesia’s top job, but his continued ambition has never been far from the surface. And Jokowi has been a weak and wounded president almost since his inauguration.

Invoking presidential prerogative on banning groups seen to disrupt ‘national unity’ could be a sign of Jokowi stamping authority on his incumbency. More likely, however, Jokowi’s reaching for more authoritarian methods reflects the fragilty of his grip on the presidency.

As always with Indonesian politics, what is seen on the surface usually reflects deeper undercurrents. Jokowi may have given himself a new weapon with which to attack his opponents. It remains unclear, however, if Jokowi will be able to wield it alone, or if his new weapon will be turned upon him.