Home Newsletters Indonesia’s backslide to ‘New Order 2.0’: A cautionary tale for Malaysia

Indonesia’s backslide to ‘New Order 2.0’: A cautionary tale for Malaysia

Sustaining democratic ideals is an ongoing battle even with the end of Umno-Barisan Nasional's iron-fisted rule in 2018

Jokowi and Prabowo in 2019 - WIKIPEDIA

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Indonesia concluded its presidential and legislative elections on 14 February.

With almost 205 million registered voters, Indonesia is the third largest democracy in the world, only surpassed by India and the US.

Dubbed as “Festival Demokrasi,” polling day in Indonesia has a carnival atmosphere. Election officers at polling stations are known to ‘Cosplay’ as Marvel superhero characters and local ghosts such as kuntilanak (an astral female spirit) and pocong (a ghost that looks like someone wrapped in a funeral cloth).

This ‘Festival of Democracy’ also has an unfortunate side that typically claims dozens of lives – not by violent conflicts but from the sheer exhaustion of running the election across the vast 17,000 islands archipelago. In this election, 57 election workers passed away while 8,381 reported sick.

This is a vast improvement from the 2019 election, which took the lives of 894 election workers, also from extreme fatigue and various pre-existing sicknesses. In Malaysia, with a tenth of the registered voters in Indonesia, such a staggering number of election-related deaths is completely unfathomable and unheard of.

But this is not my main point. The adverse impact of the 2024 Indonesian election goes beyond the sacrifices of its election workers. This election has seen Indonesia returning full circle to its authoritarian years, better known as the “New Order” era, after embarking on a journey of democratisation since 1998. It was indeed a sad day for those who care for human rights and democratic ideals.

The presumptive winner, Prabowo Subianto, was the poster boy of the New Order era. The former military man and the son-in-law of the deposed authoritarian President Suharto is infamous for his poor human rights record. While carrying out military operations in East Timor in the 1980s, his troops committed numerous atrocities, trying – and ultimately failing – to suppress Timorese independence fighters.

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As the head of the special forces Kopassus and the Jakarta strategic command Kostrad at the height of the Reformasi demonstrations and protests in the late 1990s, he ordered his men to kidnap and torture 22 political activists, 13 of whom disappeared and were presumed dead.

After the collapse of the New Order regime in May 1998, Prabowo was found guilty by a military council and unceremoniously discharged from the army. Also, because of his human rights violations, he was barred from entering the US until the ban was lifted a few years ago.

Sadly, Indonesia’s imperfect democratisation has allowed notorious New Order figures such as Prabowo to rehabilitate his image and make a political comeback. This election is Prabowo’s third attempt at the presidency and the third iteration of him in the past 10 years.

When he first ran in 2014, he presented himself as a bellicose ultra-nationalist leader who would defend Indonesia’s sovereignty at the expense of turning Indonesia into a strongman democracy.

In 2019, his campaign was supported by radical Islamists who were riding high on the success of the Aksi 212 mass demonstration against the former non-Muslim governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or better known as Ahok.

In the 2022 election, he rebranded himself as a funny and cuddly (gemoy) grandpa who danced awkwardly in TikTok videos.

Gone is the image of a tough-talking and irascibly brash army general. Prabowo is now Indonesia’s favourite non-threatening septuagenarian in a country where young voters under 40 make up more than half the electorate.

To be sure, Indonesia’s democratic decline did not start with Prabowo becoming the president – though it marks the nadir of the post-Reformasi era. The rot began with the lame-duck President Joko Widodo’s two-term administration.

Human rights activists and reform-minded Indonesians were hopeful when Jokowi assumed the presidency in 2014 as the first one who was not from a political elite or military background. But they were setting themselves up for a major disappointment.

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It did not take long for Jokowi to show his disdain for democratic ideals, particularly in his second term when he managed to consolidate his power, so much so his coalition controlled over 80% of the seats in parliament. This effectively turned the Indonesian parliament into a rubber stamp for the president’s policies.

The icing on the cake, however, was appointing Prabowo as the Defence Minister after his defeat in the 2019 election. Some saw it as a magnanimous gesture by Jokowi, who was willing to put aside differences for the collective good of the country. Others thought it was a cunning political ploy to neutralise his rival.

No matter how one sliced and diced it, the appointment of Prabowo as Defence Minister threw him a lifeline and enabled him to revive his political ambition and repair his image.

In recent years, Jokowi attempted to weaken the country’s anti-corruption agency. The agency had long been known for its independence and courage in catching corrupt big-name politicians.

His administration also passed the hugely controversial Omnibus Law that liberalised the economy at the expense of labour rights, environmental protection and local autonomy.

At one point, Jokowi and his supporters even floated the idea of amending the Constitution to allow him to stay on for a third term. A public backlash ultimately scuttled the proposal despite his high approval rating.

Jokowi then resorted to the next best move: installing his son Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as Prabowo’s vice-presidential candidate. But there was one slight complication: the 36-year-old Gibran did not meet the constitutionally mandated minimum age of 40.

The constitutional court, headed by Jokowi’s brother-in-law, came to the rescue by making an exception in Gibran’s case.

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Jokowi’s overt support for the Prabowo-Gibran campaign was seen as conduct unbecoming of an incumbent president, who was expected to show neutrality in the contest.

Critics accused Jokowi’s administration of ethical violations such as timing government’s social assistance and direct cash aid to coincide with the presidential campaign, mobilising elected local leaders to harvest votes for Prabowo-Gibran, and intimidating those who supported other candidates.

Jokowi’s second term (2019-2024) accelerated Indonesia’s democratic backslide by overturning many of the hard-fought gains of the Reformasi movement.

Prabowo’s election as the new President cements Indonesia’s inexorable regression towards New Order 2.0.

Let this be a lesson to the progressives and reform-minded people of Malaysia.

Sustaining democratic ideals is an ongoing battle even with the end of Umno-Barisan Nasional’s iron-fisted rule in 2018.

We must be vigilant in keeping the government in line with the People’s Agenda and ensuring democratic reforms are instituted and preserved.

Relics from the authoritarian era should not be allowed to reconstitute themselves as ‘democrats’ and to subvert the democratic system from within. With the rise of populist politics around the world now, we are seeing democracy dying a slow, agonising death by a thousand small cuts.

For many years, Indonesia was the beacon of democracy in a region dominated by semi-authoritarian regimes, military juntas and an absolute monarchy.

Now that proverbial democratic light has weakened to a flicker and is in grave danger of being extinguished.

Let’s hope the impending re-establishment of New Order 2.0 in Indonesia will spur the formation of a Reformasi 2.0 movement to haul Indonesia back on its democratic path.

In the meantime, let’s not lose sight of our responsibility here in Malaysia to keep the current government in check as we learn the lessons from our neighbour across the pond.

Azmil Tayeb
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
28 February 2024

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Dr Azmil Tayeb, the honorary secretary of Aliran, is a political science lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia. He is the winner of the 2019 Colleagues' Choice book prize (social science category) awarded by the International Convention of Asia Scholars for his book Islamic Education in Indonesia and Malaysia: Shaping Minds, Saving Souls
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