Professor Vedi Hadiz: Prabowo’s Election Heralds a New Level of Danger for Indonesian Democracy

Professor Vedi Hadiz, Director and Professor of Asian Studies at the Asia Institute, and Assistant Deputy Vice-Chancellor International at the University of Melbourne.

Emphasizing the pressing challenges confronting Indonesian democracy, Professor Hadiz stressed, “The current concern with Prabowo’s election lies in his deep ties to the oligarchy.” He highlighted Prabowo’s track record of human rights violations and his family’s (his brother) involvement in questionable economic activities, resulting in outstanding debts to the state. Additionally, Prabowo’s disregard for democratic processes, principles, and human rights was underscored. Acknowledging Indonesia’s enduring struggle with its oligarchic tendencies, Professor Hadiz warned that Prabowo’s election heralds a new level of danger for Indonesian democracy.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Amidst the global rise of populist movements, Indonesia emerges as a captivating case study, where the intricate interplay between populism, democracy, and Islamism unfolds amidst socio-economic transformations and political contests. The recent electoral triumph of Prabowo Subianto has ignited fervent discussions regarding the trajectory of democracy in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Vedi Hadiz, Director and Professor of Asian Studies at the Asia Institute, and Assistant Deputy Vice-Chancellor International at the University of Melbourne, provides insights into the nuanced dynamics of populism, Islamism, and democracy in Indonesia.

Professor Hadiz underscores the prevailing notion that Indonesia is often lauded as a model of successful democratic transformation, a reputation he acknowledges as, in many respects, well-deserved. However, he also draws attention to the darker realities overshadowing Indonesia’s democratic journey. Despite its strides towards democracy, Indonesia has long grappled with deep-rooted issues such as corruption and significant flaws, casting a shadow over its democratic credentials.

Moreover, Professor Hadiz highlights a pressing concern regarding the entrenchment of oligarchic power structures and the erosion of democratic norms, particularly under Prabowo’s possible leadership. He emphasizes that the rights of minorities and vulnerable groups have consistently faced limitations within the Indonesian context. Crucially, Indonesia remains under the sway of what he terms an oligarchy—an alliance between the upper echelons of the state bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie elite. This oligarchy wields influence over virtually all major political parties and exerts dominance over key state institutions and mass organizations, shaping the trajectory of Indonesian politics and governance.

Highlighting the imminent challenges facing Indonesian democracy, Professor Hadiz emphasized, "The current concern with Prabowo’s election lies in his deep ties to the oligarchy." As the former son-in-law of Suharto, the former dictator, Prabowo epitomizes the entrenched habits of the oligarchy that democratic reforms aimed to mitigate. Professor Hadiz pointed out Prabowo’s history of human rights violations and his family’s (his brother) involvement in questionable economic activities, which have left outstanding debts to the state due to these connections. Furthermore, Prabowo has displayed scant regard for democratic processes, principles, and human rights.

While acknowledging Indonesia’s longstanding struggle with its oligarchic nature, Professor Hadiz warned that Prabowo’s election heralds a new level of danger for Indonesian democracy, amplifying concerns about its future trajectory.

By unpacking the concept of populism and Islamic populism within the Indonesian context, Professor Hadiz also emphasizes its class dimensions and nuanced manifestations in the archipelago. Professor Hadiz elucidates how populism intersects with Islamism, shedding light on the distinctive features of Islamic populism and its historical evolution in Indonesia. Drawing parallels with other Muslim-majority countries, particularly Turkey and Egypt, he navigates through the intricate tapestry of socio-political forces shaping Islamic populism across diverse contexts.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Vedi Hadiz with some edits.

Islamic Populism Replaces “the People” with “the Ummah”

How do you define populism (or Islamist populism) within the context of Indonesia and the broader Islamic world, and what are its distinguishing features compared to other forms of populism? Can you discuss the relationship between Islamist populism and illiberalism & authoritarianism in Indonesia, particularly how these dynamics intersect and influence each other within the political landscape?

Vedi Hadiz: First of all, let’s delve into populism in a broad sense, followed by a discussion on populism within Indonesia, specifically Islamic populism, and its correlation with various forms of illiberalism. At its core, populism can be succinctly defined as a political inclination that frames societal dynamics as a struggle between the elites and the masses, portraying the elite as corrupt, exploitative, rapacious, or culturally detached, while depicting the people as inherently good and virtuous. However, this definition merely scratches the surface, and it’s crucial to acknowledge the contextual nuances inherent in contemporary populisms worldwide. In my analysis, I argue that all contemporary populisms in the world invariably stem from the socio-economic and political repercussions of neoliberal globalization, manifesting differently across diverse societies and impacting domestic social structures in various ways.

The second proposition I advance is that populism contains a class dimension, a facet often overlooked in scholarly discourse. Specifically, within the contemporary framework of neoliberal globalization, populism reflects varying class alliances in different contexts. I posit that these alliances are products of social and historical circumstances intersecting with globalization, resulting in asymmetrical class compositions. For instance, in some contexts, populism may represent the interests of segments of the bourgeoisie, middle class, working class, or peasantry, with power dynamics skewed towards particular classes or class relationships. The asymmetry arises because the driving force within these populist alliances can stem from a specific class or a complex interplay between different classes, where power and influence are not distributed equitably.

In Indonesian populism, there exists an alliance among the classes I mentioned, predominantly comprising individuals from the middle and lower middle classes. These are people with aspirations for upward social mobility yet find themselves hindered by the structures shaped by neoliberal globalization, resulting in widespread social inequalities evident in major economies globally. However, in some instances, such as in America, populist movements receive backing from sections of big business. Nevertheless, the primary social agents driving these movements are often from the lower middle class, whose socio-economic aspirations remain unfulfilled amidst processes of social and economic development. Similarly, aspirations of the lower classes are impeded, albeit with less organization and access to socio-economic and political resources compared to the educated middle classes.

Returning to Indonesia, and focusing directly on the concept of Islamic populism, it presents a distinct form of populism where the notion of "the people" is replaced by the idea of the Ummah, the community of believers. Despite globalization, this concept becomes increasingly nationally defined, as the struggles of the Ummah are framed within national borders. The social agents of Islamic populism in Indonesia typically represent the lower middle classes, whose social mobility has been impeded despite education and efforts at advancement. These individuals articulate their grievances through the lens of social justice, drawing upon Islamic cultural resources rather than liberal or leftist ideologies.

The distinction between Indonesian and Turkish Islamic populism lies in their class dynamics. Indonesian Islamic populism primarily emerges from the middle class, unable to establish alliances with segments of the big bourgeoisie. In contrast, Turkish Islamic populism has been fueled by the Anatolian bourgeoisie—a group of businesses from the provinces challenging the traditional Kemalist elite. This alliance offers resources to uplift the poor, including urban populations, by leveraging the organizational capacity of the middle class and financial backing to implement social welfare initiatives.

Whereas in Indonesia, the challenge arises from the fact that the big bourgeoisie is predominantly ethnically Chinese and not considered part of the Ummah. Consequently, the formation of alliances akin to those in Turkey is considerably restricted. This limitation significantly hampers the ability of the social agents of Islamic populism, primarily concentrated in the urban lower middle class, to uplift the lower classes through initiatives such as social welfare and education. These constraints underscore the broader issue of responses to social inequality and competition stemming from neoliberal globalization in Asia.

Populisms vary in manifestation and expression due to socio-historical disparities and the availability of cultural resources. For instance, in Muslim-majority countries, particularly where the left is either absent or weak, Islam often serves as the framework for political discourse, allowing ideas about social justice to be articulated within an Islamic context. Conversely, in countries like Brazil where Islam does not play a significant role in shaping political discourse, alternative cultural resources are sought to frame a language that can foster the cross-class alliances previously mentioned.

Islamist Populists in Indonesia Are Not Entirely Anti-Democratic

What are the key characteristics of Islamist populist movements in Indonesia since the 1960s, and how have they interacted with democracy in the post-Suharto era? Can you provide a historical overview of the relationship between populism and Islamism in Indonesia, and explain their impact on governance, societal dynamics, political mobilization, policymaking, social cohesion, and identity politics?

Vedi Hadiz: I draw a distinction between what I term as older forms of Islamic populism and newer forms of Islamic populism. The former tends to be rooted in the petty bourgeoisie, traditional traders and small landowners. In contrast, modern Islamic populism is centered around the urban lower middle class and the educated middle class, whose aspirations have been thwarted despite promises of modernity. Unlike the 1960s, Islamic populism in Asia is no longer primarily fueled by these traditional traders and small landowners, but rather by a new segment of society emerging from the modernization process—the urban middle and lower middle classes. Consequently, their aspirations and motivations differ as well.

In older forms of Islamic populism, there typically exists a suspicion of capitalism, rooted in its association with foreign dominance through colonialism and imperialism. However, in newer forms, attitudes toward capitalism can vary. On one hand, there may be strong anti-foreign sentiments, particularly in Indonesia, where anti-Chinese sentiments arise due to the perception of ethnic Chinese control over big business. On the other hand, there’s an acknowledgment that capitalism can offer avenues for upward social mobility, leading to a willingness to compromise with it. This perspective is influenced by examples such as Turkey, where capitalism facilitated upward mobility and access to state power for social agents previously marginalized under Kemalist rule. In Indonesia, however, such outcomes have been limited, if not entirely absent, highlighting a key distinction between old and new Islamic populism.

In Indonesia, the relationship between this new Islamic populism and democracy is also a bit complex. On one hand, some social agents argue that democracy is incompatible with Islam due to the concept of a Caliphate. However, others recognize that, alongside opportunities within the market, democracy offers avenues for upward social mobility and access to state power. Consequently, there are Islamic populists who establish political parties and engage in democratic competition. They are not entirely anti-democratic; in fact, they show sympathy towards democratic mechanisms, acknowledging instances where democracy has facilitated upward social mobility and enabled control over certain aspects of the state.

Islamic Populists in Indonesia Lack Material Resources to Secure Votes of Poor

Former Minister of Defense and winner of the February 14, 2024, Presidential election, Prabowo Subianto, pictured at the 77th-anniversary celebration of the Indonesian Air Force in Jakarta on April 9, 2023. Photo: Donny Hery.

How do you assess the role of populist rhetoric and strategies in the recent Indonesian elections, particularly regarding Prabowo Subianto’s victory? What factors contributed to his success, and how significant was the influence of populism in shaping voter preferences? 

Vedi Hadiz: This case is intriguing because in the previous elections of 2014 and 2019, there was significant mobilization of popular sentiment from both nationalist and Islamist factions. However, in the 2024 election, the rhetoric was notably restrained. This shift occurred partly because Prabowo, the candidate, abandoned his previous allies within the Islamic populist community in favor of aligning with status nationalists who wield control over the state bureaucracy. This strategic move stemmed from the Islamic populists’ inability to provide Prabowo with the necessary material resources to secure the votes of the poor.

Consequently, there was a concerted effort to distribute social aid such as food and rice to the poor, orchestrated by the state machinery, to portray Prabowo as a nationalist populist. Notably, Anies Baswedan, a former ally of the Islamists, failed to mount an effective Islamic populist challenge against this state bureaucratic-led mobilization effort. Such activation would have necessitated alliances with specific state social agents, including the military and local government, which were mobilized in favor of Prabowo. This highlights the limited influence of Islamic populism in Indonesia compared to Turkey, where its upward and downward connections are stronger.

In Indonesia, Islamic populism requires alliances with particular state social agents to be effective. However, in this instance, those alliances were directed away from Islamic populists toward a more nationalist-oriented form of populism exploited by the winning candidate, General Prabowo.

What implications does Prabowo Subianto’s recent electoral victory have for democracy in Indonesia? Are there concerns regarding the consolidation of populist leadership and its impact on democratic institutions and processes, and how might this victory influence societal divisions, governance structures, and the overall political landscape in the country?  

Vedi Hadiz: Indonesia is often hailed as a successful example of democratic transformation, and in many ways that reputation is well deserved. However, it’s crucial to recognize that Indonesia’s democracy has long been plagued by corruption and significant flaws. The rights of minorities and vulnerable groups have been consistently limited. Additionally, Indonesia remains under the control of what I’ve termed an oligarchy—a coalition between the upper echelons of the state bureaucracy and the upper echelons of bourgeoisie. This oligarchy was established during the authoritarian era under Suharto, and despite democratization efforts since 1998, it has persisted and entrenched itself within Indonesia’s democratic and governance institutions. Today, this oligarchy holds sway over virtually all major political parties and dominates key state institutions, mass organizations and so on. Thus, Indonesian democracy has always been characterized by oligarchic domination.

The current concern with Prabowo’s election lies in his deep ties to the oligarchy. As the former son-in-law of Suharto, the former dictator, he epitomizes the entrenched habits of the oligarchy that democratic reforms aimed to mitigate. This includes a history of human rights violations and his family’s (his brother) involvement in questionable economic activities, with outstanding debts to the state due to these connections. Moreover, Prabowo has shown scant regard for democratic processes, principles and human rights. While Indonesian democracy has long grappled with its oligarchic nature, the Prabowo’s election adds a new level of danger.

Indonesian Democrats Should Worry Whether Substantive Democracy Will Endure

The New York Times ran a story right after the elections claiming that ‘Prabowo Subianto’ victory has cast doubts on the future of one of the world’s most vibrant democracies.’ And added that: ‘The era of liberty that followed the ouster of Suharto, critics say, could now be under threat with Mr. Prabowo’s ascent to power.’ Let me ask you bluntly is the biggest Muslim democracy and the third largest democracy in the world in danger?

Vedi Hadiz: The reality is that many rights have regressed over the past decade, signaling a troubling trend. What Prabowo’s rise to power signifies, in my opinion, is an acceleration of this regression—a further erosion of rights and a deepening crisis for Indonesian democracy. It’s reasonable for supporters of democracy in Indonesia to worry whether substantive democracy will endure beyond the mere act of holding elections.

With Subianto in power with nationalist populism and Islamism, are we going to witness a replay of Narendra Modi in India or Donald Trump in US meaning the era of liberal democracy has ended?

Vedi Hadiz: First and foremost, it’s essential not to romanticize Indonesia’s recent past in terms of liberal democracy, as there have never been strong liberal democratic or social democratic parties. The major political forces in Indonesia have typically been nationalist or Islamic nationalist in nature. Thus, Indonesia has never experienced a liberalized democracy that could be dismantled. Instead, what Prabowo’s potential ascension represents is a significant setback. It threatens to extinguish the impulses within Indonesian society that have historically sought to counter the illiberal tendencies of the oligarchy and advocate for the expansion of rights across society despite oligarchic dominance.

Ultimately, Prabowo’s rise would likely signify the oligarchy’s near-total control over Indonesian democracy. This would stifle challenges aimed at securing and broadening rights, achieving greater social equality, and expanding access to power and economic resources.

Preemptive Adoption of Islamic Rhetoric Contributes to Illiberalism in Indonesia

DKI Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan with residents of Kampung Akuarium in Jakarta, Indonesia on April 14 2018. Photo: Shutterstock.

In your article ‘No Turkish delight: the impasse of Islamic party politics in Indonesia,’ you compare the cases of AKP (The Justice and Development Party) and PKS (The Prosperous Justice Party – Partai Keadilan Sejahtera). Where did PKS fail to achieve where AKP in Turkey succeeded? What results does this comparison between AKP and PKS yield in terms of populisms the respective parties employed?

Vedi Hadiz: It’s evident in Turkish elections that the AKP consistently emerges victorious, while the PKS tends to suffer defeats, including in its support for presidential candidates. This underscores what I mentioned earlier: Islamic populism in Indonesia, although present, has not developed to the extent seen in Turkey. Consequently, it relies on alliances and compromises to exert influence, yet remains largely outside the core of power. However, this doesn’t mean it lacks influence altogether. On the contrary, forces outside Islamic networks often adopt Islamic rhetoric preemptively, as seen in recent legislation incorporating moralistic concerns advocated by Islamists regarding sexual relations.

This preemptive adoption of Islamic rhetoric serves to preempt Islamist forces from using such issues to attack those in power. Yet, despite their electoral losses, the mainstreaming of their ideas contributes to the illiberalism of Indonesian democracy. This is because many of these ideas lean towards the illiberal end of the spectrum, further shaping the political landscape even in their absence from power.

Alright. And the lastly, Professor, how does the phenomenon of Islamist populism in Indonesia compare and contrast with similar movements in other Muslim-majority countries, and what insights can be drawn from these comparative analyses? What are the similarities and differences especially between Islamist populism in Indonesia and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region?

Vedi Hadiz: These phenomena have a long historical trajectory, traceable back to at least the early 20th century. However, in the past, they were dominated by older forms of populism, which have since evolved into more modern iterations. This trend is evident in the MENA region as well. For instance, in Egypt, supporters of the now-defunct Muslim Brotherhood included professionals such as doctors, engineers, and lawyers, marking a departure from the provincial figures of the 1950s. Similarly, in Turkey, Islamic populism encompasses a diverse range of individuals. While the social transformations brought about by capitalist development and globalization have impacted the MENA region in a similar manner, the specific histories and interactions with neoliberal globalization have resulted in distinct manifestations in each country.

In Turkey, Islamic populism has largely dominated both the state and a significant portion of civil society. In contrast, in Egypt, Islamic populism once held sway over civil society but failed to extend its influence on the state. In Indonesia, Islamic populism has thus far been unable to exert dominance over either the state or civil society.

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