Interview with Dr. Sachsenröder: Is Indonesia a role model for a Muslim democracy?

Interview with Dr. Sachsenröder: Is Indonesia a role model for a Muslim democracy?

Global Review had the honour and opportunity to have an interview with South East Asia expert Dr. Wolfgang Sachsenröder about Indonesia as role model for a Muslim democracy.

Wolfgang Sachsenröder owned his PhD in Political Science and Public Law from the University of Bonn, Germany. He got involved in party politics in the student revolution of 1968, and worked later as a political adviser in Asia, the Middle East, and the Balkans, for a quarter of a century. Coming back to Singapore in 2008, he joined the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, and focused on the party developments in the region. More information on the party systems can be found in:
Sachsenroeder, Wolfgang, ed. (2014), Party Politics in Southeast Asia – Organization – Money – Influence, available at Amazon books. A book on party finances and political corruption, titled “Power broking in the shade” was published in 2018. Power Broking in the Shade, Party Finances and Money Politics in Southeast Asia, WorldScientific 2018, ISBN 9789813230736

The Partyforum South East Asia has its own informative website at:

Global Review: Dr. Sachsenroeder, could you give a short summary of the political parties and their representatives in the last Indonesian elections, the outcome and your interpretation of the results?

Dr. Sachsenröder: It is important to see it in the perspective of where Indonesia’s democracy came from. After 300 years of Dutch colonial rule and more than three decades under the autocratic rule of general Suharto, Indonesia started into a new era of democratisation in May 1998. Suharto had come to power in 1965 with a bloody military coup against real and alleged communists and against the leftist non-aligned policies of the country’s first president Sukarno. Under what the new ruler called “new order”, political parties were not allowed except a semblance of a party called “Golongan Karya (Golkar)” or functional groups. Under the “guided democracy” of Sukarno, Golkar had been established already in 1959, in order to stem the growing influence of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). Teachers, trade unions, the police, and especially the Armed Forces were initially the main members, but by 1968 Golkar had co-opted a total of 250 organisations. Under President Suharto, Golkar was a convenient instrument to control and rule the huge and diverse archipelago of 18.000 islands and 300 ethnic groups. As a democratic fig leaf, two parties, the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) and the United Development Party (PPP), were still allowed but without any chance to challenge Golkar in the controlled elections.

After the fall of Suharto, Golkar survived as a major force in the unfolding spectrum of new parties. As in comparable regime changes in other parts of the world, networks, money, and leadership skills helped Golkar to stay relevant and re-invent itself as a democratically acceptable force in the reform era after 1998. In the regional comparison, Indonesia can only be commended for her continuing democratic reform efforts, notwithstanding quite a number of teething problems and shortcomings. For the Western, especially the European eyes, it is necessary to acknowledge the enormous technical and organizational challenges for the General Election Commission (KPU), given the geographical diversity of the country and her 190 million eligible voters and over 860.000 voting stations. The vote counting alone takes many weeks, different types of irregularities are rampant, and especially vote-buying ironically guarantees a high voter turnout because it creates some additional income for the poor. Money politics is widespread as in most countries in Southeast Asia, poor candidates have hardly a chance to win a mandate. And internal critics resent that without formal membership and membership fees, the parties as such are weak and rather often just a vehicle for leaders with charisma and money, or at least the know-how to organise funding sources. The most common source is the “scalping” of development and infrastructure funds at a rate of 10-30 per cent, the biggest scandal involving no less than US$170 million, divided among at least 37 beneficiaries from different parties in a backroom of the parliament. The main culprit, a former speaker of parliament, is in prison, but the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) is under attack from time to time by interested circles.

Indonesia’s party system is volatile, and the number of parties seen as much too high. Several changes in the election rules and a 4% threshold for winning parliamentary seats have successfully reduced their proliferation. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace gives a good overview and a general assessment of the main parties:

The results of the last general election in April 2019 and the nine out of 27 parties who made it into parliament are as follows:

PDI-PMegawati Sukarnoputri19.33128
GerindraPrabowo Subianto12.5778
PKBMuhaimin Iskandar9.6958
NasdemSurya Paloh9.0559
PKSSohibul Iman8.2150
DemokratSusilo Bambang Yudhoyono7.7754
PANZulkifli Hasan6.8444
PPPSuharso Monoarfa4.5219

Since the president and his deputy were elected on the same day, the race between incumbent Joko Widodo, nicknamed Jokowi, and his challenger Prabowo Subianto was influential for the whole election exercise. The president and his coalition were the safer bet for a majority of the voters, though his own party, the PDI-P, won only less than 20 per cent of the votes. The competition with Probowo has been described as a choice between civilian and military, more liberal and more authoritarian, moderate and more observant Islam, and more. The losing ex-general Prabowo refused to acknowledge his defeat claiming systemic fraud but insinuated already a couple of months later that he might join President Widodo’s ruling coalition. His meeting with PDI-P’s matriarch leader Megawati Sukarnoputri made headlines in Indonesia in July. Mrs. Megawati (72), or Mega in short, has been re-elected for a fifth five-year term at the beginning of August. As the daughter of the country’s first president Sukarno, and a former president herself, she is one of the stable factors in Indonesia’s politics. During her re-election by acclamation she denied that she is grooming her son and her daughter for sharing the burden of the office and eventual succession, a criticism cropping up regularly in the domestic debate and the media. But the family prestige and the wealth of her late husband have certainly helped a lot to stay at the helm. 

Global Review: Due to the lack of democracies in the Muslim world except instable Tunisia and the semi-democracies Pakistan or Bangladesh in which the military still plays an important role, many point to Indonesia as a role model for a Muslim democracy. Do you think Indonesia is an accurate example and model for the future Muslim world?

Dr. Sachsenröder: In a non-Muslim view, Indonesia may still be seen as a beacon of tolerance. But given the influence of Saudi Arabia’s export of Wahabism and the widespread demand for a caliphate in many Muslim countries, Indonesia is probably not exactly a role model. From a fundamentalist Muslim perspective, the secular parts of the political system are unacceptable, and so they are perceived among the growing fundamentalist groups in Indonesia. Twenty years ago, a friend in Jakarta told me: “We are Muslims despite the Middle East”. In the meantime, a wave of “Arabisation” is sweeping through Southeast Asia, and religious fanatism is a growing threat for the internal security in most countries in the region, from Myanmar with the Rohingya problem, the Philippines with Mindanao, and Thailand with the Muslim South, to Malaysia and Singapore who try to control radical preachers and ban their  incendiary influence.

Religious tolerance is wearing thinner, and the traditional co-existence of devout Muslims (santri) and less strict or indifferent (abangan) Indonesians as well as with Christians, Hindus (in Bali) and others seems to be getting more difficult. Attacks on Christian churches happen, and the blasphemy conviction of the former governor of Jakarta under pressure of Muslim organisations show the increasing intolerance. The re-election of President Joko Widodo, who was attacked for an alleged lack of Muslim credentials before the April 2019 election, could mainly be secured by his selection of a prominent Muslim scholar as vice-presidential candidate. A rather worrying development is the Islamic awakening among university students and their organisations as well as the indoctrination of generations of younger students in Muslim boarding schools (pesantren) in the rural areas.
In terms of democratic progress and the general acceptance of the democratic institutions, Indonesia may be a role model for other Muslim countries. The Islamic parties have not been very successful so far in the elections, partially because they have had their own scandals and lost their alleged moral superiority, and partially because the secular parties don’t neglect religious voters either. The national “ideology” Pancasila (literally five principles, namely belief in God, a just and civilized humanity, a unified Indonesia, democracy, and social justice) encompasses religion, including different religions. Even the secular main ruling party PDI-P has its own religious wing since 2007 to attract Muslim voters. Last but not least, the Islamic mass organisations Nahdlatul Ulama und Muhammadiyah with 40 and 30 million members respectively,  don’t leave much space in terms of credibility for the National Awakening Party (PKB), the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), and the United Development Party (PPP), but the three nevertheless scored 9.7, 8.2, and 4.5 % respectively in this year’s election, altogether 22.4 % of the votes. 

Global Review: Under Sukarno the main uniting ideology was Nasakom, means the combination of three pillars: nationalism (nasionalisme), religion-you had to believe in religion, but not necessarily in Islam (agama) and communism (komunisme). At this time Indonesia was one leading nation of the Nonaligned movement. As the nationalist, communist and Islamic groups couldn´t cooperate and tensions grew, it came to the military coup of nationalist military general Suharto supported by the USA and in cooperation with Islamist groups who slaughtered the Communist party and many Indonesian citizens of Chinese origin. After Suharto´s ouster came the Indonesian democracy under Megawati. How has Indonesia changed its ideology and its foreign relations, also in the ASEAN?

Dr. Sachsenröder: Nasakom and Pancasila are not really ideologies in the stricter sense like communism or socialism but more a simplified orientation and guideline among competing systems and roughly delineated political options. The Suharto coup in 1965-66 which cost between 500.000 and a million Indonesian lives, was part of the cold war and the American domino theory. The alleged and real communists all over Southeast Asia were often Chinese who had already fought against the Japanese occupation. As nearly everywhere else, communism as a political factor has disappeared. The Indonesian notion of nationalism is mainly domestic and tries to uphold the political, territorial, and social unity of this most diverse nation. The acceptance of East Timor’s independence twenty years ago was a big achievement of statesmanship and military moderation, as the ongoing Papua conflict shows the fragility of the national cohesion. That said, I don’t see big changes in ideology but a balanced and reasonable approach to the challenges of a fast-growing population and limited resources of the country and her global and regional role. The co-operation with the ASEAN members is certainly helpful but not decisive for the domestic democratic development.

Global Review: The former Islam expert of the Bush jr. administration and founder of the Middle East Forum, Daniel Pipes, claims that Islamism had already reached its peak in 2013 and is splitting in different factions as Communism and Panarabism before—means the opposite of a tendency of unification. Other Islam experts think that Islamism has reached its peak with the Islamic State which was successfully destroyed in the centre of the Greater Middle East and that a second wave is now reaching the periphery in Africa and Southeast Asia. There was an uprising of the Islamic state in the Philippines, which was successfully suppressed, but the Philippines are a Catholic country. Is there a danger of Islamization of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei?

Dr. Sachsenröder: Islam is anything but monolithic, and the ethnic patchwork in many Southeast Asian countries is adding to the complexity. The huge majority being Sunni, nevertheless Shia communities have survived and struggle for recognition. But during the last two to three decades, a wave of Islamic awakening is sweeping through the region. Headscarves were rare or limited to elderly women, now they are nearly mandatory for young women, sometimes even for kindergarten girls, and hiding the face under a Niqab becomes more common, even in Singapore.

Halal food, Muslim banking, Muslim travel arrangements, travel destinations and similar services are booming businesses, and the Arabic pillars of the faith, especially Hajj and Umrah are more than popular. Their political support in Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as Singapore, is vital for the legitimacy of the governments.

The Islamic awakening, maybe the more suitable term for Southeast Asia, is more than visible, and the political demands it carries are more and more developing into  internal security problems, including jihadism and terrorist cells. In Indonesia, as mentioned above, a more moderate Islam has prevailed so far, but the blasphemy case against the governor of Jakarta in 2016 has shown the possible impact of fundamentalist Islamic movements.
The Malaysian case is similarly dangerous and was greatly fanned by the ethnic and religious policies of the UMNO regime, toppled in May 2018. The privileges given to the 60% Malay population were long enough a guarantee for the decades of UMNO rule. And the Sultanate of Brunei is clearly Islamic, as the infamous legislation against homosexuals has shown recently.
Islamism is sweeping through Southeast Asia already for decades, fuelled partially by Saudi money and the local ignorance about the difficult reality in most Arab countries. Privileged career opportunities, mostly in education, for students graduating from Cairo, Amman, or Riyad, have stabilized the role of Islam in the rural areas and penetrated the cities as well. The peer group pressure to openly display the accepted religious credentials has grown exponentially, notably at the same time and speed as indifference and atheism have grown in most European countries. 

Global Review: In Indonesia you have the already Islamized Aceh province. An Indonesian politician with Chinese descent was toppled due to the charge of blasphemy, and President Widido flew to Saudi Arabia to participate in the Haj to get some Islamic credentials. Which are the most important Islamist groups and other Muslim parties he has to pay tribute to? Is Sukarno´s agama shifting towards Islam and Indonesia defining its national identity more and more by Islam?

Dr. Sachsenröder: As mentioned above, the “moderate Islam” as a traditional trademark of Indonesia is under threat by an increasing wave of “Arabisation” in the Muslim-majority countries Indonesia and Malaysia. While the developments in Malaysia were aggravated by deliberate policies of the ousted UMNO regime for their survival in power, the Indonesian religious awakening is more bottom-up. The worrying part is the propensity of the younger generation, especially in the universities, to follow more fundamentalist tendencies and showing it in fashion, behaviour, and demands on fellow citizens. Apart from the strict practices in the Aceh province on Sumatra, Java with more than 140 million inhabitants is the other hotbed for a radicalising variety of Islam. Moving the administrative capital, some observers say, could have as one of the reasons a move away from these tendencies.

Global Review: Which role had the military under Suharto and after the democratisation? Was it a development dictatorship like South Korea? Or controlled politics by its own party and had a business empire as in Egypt? Was there a separation between civil and military sector after the democratization or does the military still have a say by a National Security Council and special laws like in Turkey? Does the Indonesian military perceive itself as a secular power as in Egypt or Turkey and would it make a military coup in the event that a Islamist party wants to seize power?

Dr. Sachsenröder: The Armed Forces are no longer a state within the state as in Suharto’s time. President Widodo’s election victory over his challenger, ex-general Prabowo and his military posturing, may be an indicator that civilian government is now widely accepted. In the reforms of 2004, the military lost its reserved seats in parliament and its former “dual function” (dwifungsi) role in security and politics. Soldiers and police have no right to vote, but the Army remains powerful in the background and might intervene in the case of a crisis. With 400.000 active soldiers out of a population of 257 million, the army is relatively small, compulsory service is not necessary. Its budget is estimated at about 3% of the GDP, army-owned businesses are adding to it. President Widodo entertains close relations to leading officers, two of his most trusted advisers are former generals, certainly a clever move to integrate the army in the civilian government.
Whether the Armed Forces would prevent Indonesia from being taken over by Islamists is a rather theoretical question for the time being. Personally, I would expect them to do so, as long as terrorist groups alleging to be the guardians of absolute truth are an international and potentially national threat. 

Global Review: Indonesia plans to relocate its capital to Borneo. Some commentators think this is because of the sea level rise in the Pacific, other claim it has to do with the overpopulation of Jakarta and a lacking infrastructure, others claim this was a political symbol as in Myanmar. What is the motive to move the capital? And if it was the sea level rise, which position has Indonesia on climate change and environmental protection?

Dr. Sachsenröder: Jakarta is certainly one of the most endangered cities, sinking with up to 25 cm per year faster than any other place and confronting the threat of rising sea levels at the same time. With nearly 11 million inhabitants and about 30 million in the metropolitan region, air pollution, an infernal traffic, and rather late underground construction for a smoother public transport, the capital of Indonesia is dysfunctional in many ways. The 40% Javanese and their dominance in politics and business is being resented in other parts of the country. Moving the administrative capital to Borneo might be seen as symbol of a more balanced approach to governing the country. But former failed attempts to resettle people from overcrowded Java to more empty parts of Indonesia, the “transmigrasi” program of the 1960s and 70s, resettling up to six million people from Java to outer islands, is not encouraging much hope that the new capital in East Kalimantan will ever match the population and the economic importance of Jakarta. The plan to employ up to 1.5 million civil servants in the new capital looks rather bold at the moment, and the enormous cost of the relocation may stretch the timeline anyway.
Environmental concerns abound in the huge archipelago which stretches over 5.000 km from East to West. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are common, and the growing population is eradicating forest areas for agricultural purposes. The importance of palm oil as cash crop is destroying additional forest areas every year by slash and burn clearing, and peat fires are adding to regional haze problems quite regularly. Air traffic is unavoidable given the distances, and the environmental consciousness of the broader public certainly needs more attention.

The success of Australia’s Canberra, Malaysia’s Putrajaya, or to a lesser degree Brasilia may have encouraged President Widodo to prepare for a major legacy of his terms in office. 

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