Indonesian politics are becoming less predictable

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WITH an eager smile and only a few tufts of hair on his chin, Ibrahim, a 30-year-old protester in Jakarta, does not seem like much of a Muslim firebrand. Yet on September 29th he and his four-year-old son, Alid, who clutched a flag emblazoned with the opening lines of the Koran, joined thousands of hard-line Islamists marching in protest against the government. Their concern? Communism and the “criminalisation” of Islam in the world’s most populous Muslim country, he says. In a feat of doublethink, he rails against capitalism, too: “There’s no distribution of wealth, so the rich become richer and the poor become poorer.” Ibrahim may have a fuzzy idea of what exactly he is protesting against. But his muddled ideology could still present a threat to President Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, who is likely to seek a second five-year term in 2019.

Jokowi’s election in 2014 was hailed by enthusiastic observers as a turning-point in Indonesian politics. When campaigning he emphasised his probity and humility. He promised to improve crumbling roads, ports and airports, remove graft from politics and boost foreign investment. Comparisons were made to Barack Obama, on the basis that the two men both had a certain gawky charm and both appeared to inspire an enormous amount of hope. An avid user of social media, Jokowi regularly uploads short clips on YouTube, making him seem far more accessible than most politicians. A hand-held video of a lunch he hosted for King Salman of Saudi Arabia, which shows the monarch slurping soup (from a golden spoon) has been watched 2m times.

In his first year Jokowi appeared to be the reformer that liberals had dreamed of. He scrapped a wasteful fuel subsidy and introduced a popular health-insurance scheme, which soon enrolled 130m members, or half the population. State spending on infrastructure shot up by 51% in 2014-15, to 209trn rupiah ($15.5bn). He has let the corruption commission do its job, unlike parliament, which has repeatedly attempted to neuter it. All of this means he has a huge personal appeal, with approval ratings of around 68% in both urban and rural areas, and among people with different levels of education.

Ratings and slatings

Nonetheless, Jokowi’s chances of being re-elected have started to look shaky. A survey conducted in September by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, an Indonesian think-tank, found that only 50% of those polled would vote for him. That suggests that the race in 2019 might be as tight as the one in 2014, which Jokowi won with 53% of the vote. An upset in the election in April for the governor of Jakarta, in which Jokowi’s ally, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (or Ahok), lost despite high approval ratings and the advantage of incumbency, has made Indonesian politics look far more unpredictable.

Part of the problem for Jokowi, who is Muslim but broadly secular in his outlook, is rising religiosity. During his presidential campaign, rumours circulated that he was actually Christian. When he ran for governor of Jakarta in 2012, Ahok, who is Christian, was his running-mate and then deputy. During Ahok’s campaign for governor, Islamist activists pilloried him for his religion. And they claimed, misleadingly, that he had criticised the Koran. As a result, he is now serving a two-year sentence for blasphemy. A group called the Islamic Defenders Front, which was behind the rally on September 29th, organised huge protests against him. They are not the only religious agitators. In August in East Java a 30-metre statue of Guan Yu, a Chinese deity, was partially covered with a white sheet after local Muslims threatened to tear it down.

According to the Institute of South-East Asian Studies in Singapore, most Muslim Indonesians take a relaxed approach to certain aspects of their religion, such as going on the haj (only 11% say that is extremely important). In other areas, however, they appear to be more doctrinaire: the majority think that women should wear a hijab and 67% think that instituting sharia would “strengthen moral values”. Religious violence surged after the overthrow of Suharto, Indonesia’s long-serving strongman, in 1998, but then appeared to dissipate; it is again becoming more common. “It is quite clear that there is a rise of tribalism across the world and we are not immune from it,” says Tom Lembong, the head of the investment-promotion agency.

Yet religion would not be such a handy tool for Jokowi’s opponents if the economy were faring better. Since 2014 annual GDP growth has hovered around 5%, slightly below the levels achieved under Jokowi’s predecessor and well below the rates Indonesia registered in the 1970s and 1980s. The fall in commodity prices, coupled with dauntingly complex regulations, has caused foreign investment to slump. The proportion of a company’s shares that can be in foreign hands varies from industry to industry, with different rules for everything from carmaking to berry cultivation. Infrastructure spending has also slowed down since 2014. Structural reforms, including an overhaul of the tax system, are sorely needed. Yet Mr Lembong says no big reforms are in the works.

The result can be glimpsed in Tanah Abang, a wholesale clothes market in central Jakarta. On a weekday morning few customers explore its labyrinthine aisles of fabrics, jeans and patterned dresses. Instead most shopkeepers chat among themselves. Manual labourers sprawl on bags full of merchandise, looking at their smartphones or sleeping. The workers complain that sales have slumped over the past two years and that there are not enough jobs for young people.

Rehmad Yogi, a 22-year-old who works in a shop where the female mannequins sport headscarves, thinks the economy is the “most important thing”. He says he supports Prabowo Subianto, a former general who was Jokowi’s adversary in 2014 and probably will be again in 2019. Nanto, who is 19, travels 60km from his home town of Bogor on a motorbike each day for work. He, too, prefers Mr Prabowo, though he worries that he is “too violent”. Sang Phim, who works at a stall selling knock-off sportswear, is an enthusiastic supporter of Jokowi, who is the “best president of Indonesia”. Yet even he seems cautious. Every time Indonesians go to the polls they appear to be more and more influenced by religion, he says anxiously.