Explaining Indonesia’s Political Stability

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The country’s democratic durability has been underpinned by pragmatic collaboration between elites. This has come at a cost.

One aspect of Indonesian politics that baffles both foreign and domestic observers is its enduring political stability. Some critics assert that this stability rests on a fragile, illiberal democratic foundation. However, others openly commend the country for its improbable resilience, especially in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998. One political scientist, Dan Slater, contends that Indonesia’s democracy has outperformed its closest national analogues. While far from flawless, the country’s democracy has arguably contributed to stability rather than threatening it.

Nevertheless, this relatively stable political climate is not without its challenges. Deep polarization and the rise of identity politics were, for some years, viewed as the primary threats to Indonesia’s democratic consolidation. Money politics and vote buying continue to pervade elections at every level, not to mention the persistent issue of corruption, which remains a major obstacle to achieving good governance. The COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters have further complicated matters, acting as external shocks that impede both national and local development. Given the country’s extensive history of conflicts, it might seem improbable to maintain a stable political climate conducive to effective policy-making and functional governance. Yet, despite these challenges Indonesia has demonstrated remarkable political stability.

What, then, underpins this stability? At least two answers can be offered. First, power-sharing among the elites has become a norm, supported by patronage politics. Second, and closely related to the first, many parties have become mere vehicles for politicians, with relatively open organizational structures, making it easy for politicians to switch allegiances and reducing the risk of elite divisions. Indonesia represents a paradoxical case where illiberal politics, which might be classified as predatory according to ideal liberal democratic standards, actually plays a role in sustaining stability and preserving elite cohesion.

Power Sharing

The practice of power-sharing in Indonesia reached new heights in 2019, when President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo extended an unexpected invitation to his political rival, Prabowo Subianto, to join his cabinet as defense minister at the start of his second term, after a bitterly fought presidential election campaign. This move stirred dissatisfaction among their respective supporters, but the political elites remained resolute in supporting this reconciliation. This significant event took place prior to the pandemic’s onset and subsequently transformed Prabowo, the leader of the nationalist party Gerindra, into an unlikely staunch supporter of Jokowi’s administration. Currently, the former head of Indonesia’s special forces and son-in-law of Suharto is the frontrunner for the 2024 presidential election, his third consecutive bid for the presidency.

In the realm of power-sharing, Jokowi has adopted a strategy akin to his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, forming an expansive governing coalition. Jokowi has leveraged his cabinet not only to accommodate various political parties but also to reward loyal supporters. As an illustration, in 2019 he appointed the leader of his largest political volunteer organization, Budi Arie Setiadi, as his deputy minister of villages. Budi was later appointed to the role of minister of communication and informatics. Moreover, Jokowi has reserved positions in his cabinet for non-parliamentary parties.

The appointment of party representatives as ministers highlights the importance of stability over the pursuit of good governance. While having more parties in the coalition might seem to introduce more potential veto players, making it challenging to implement reforms, this only holds true if these parties have fundamentally different policy or ideological stances. In the case of Indonesia, such differences are notably absent.

Jokowi has strategically and intuitively harnessed politicians’ pragmatic and opportunistic nature for his political advantage, primarily to advance his own political agenda. Instead of complicating his administration, this politics of accommodation has enabled Jokowi to maintain a sharp focus on achieving his agenda, while receiving unwavering support from his extensive coalition, whose many parties lack distinct policy agendas. In addition to this, his approval rating has consistently surpassed 70 percent, outperforming the leaders of most democratic countries. This has allowed him to maintain his dominance without needing to be a party leader. However, this high approval rating also renders his coalition excessively dependent on Jokowi’s popularity.

Party Organization

As pointed out by political scientists, post-Reformasi Indonesia has seen the dominance of “vehicle parties” in its political landscape. These parties were initially established solely as vehicles for presidential candidacies and lack any clear ideological foundation. They also exert minimal control over technocratic decision-making between elections. In other words, these parties primarily come into play during election campaigns and have limited involvement in the executive branch. While this perspective holds some truth, it is only part of the story.

A closer look at Jokowi’s cabinet reveals a relatively balanced mix of professionals and political party representatives. If we view access to state resources as the supply side of Indonesian politics, we must also consider the demand side presented by the political parties. These parties need to be intricately involved in government operations as they rely on national resources to support their programs. Becoming part of the opposition is less appealing for parties not just because they lack a coherent policy agenda but also because it keeps them away from state resources. After a prolonged period outside the governing coalition, parties may experience “oppositional fatigue” and find the invitation to join the coalition enticing, particularly when offered a strategically significant position within the cabinet. The primary contribution these parties can offer to the ruling power is perhaps the most crucial one: political stability.

Beyond the focus on candidacy rather than technocracy, what’s even more significant is that medium and small parties in Indonesia tend to have an open party structure, facilitating the easy movement of political elites. This is crucial for maintaining elite cohesion, as it encourages intra-party connections that minimize conflicts and disagreements. Some elites can effortlessly switch from one party to another without being tethered and often act as power brokers. Even in parties that appear to have more closed and hierarchical structures, individuals who have reached the zenith of their political careers or those who have lost in internal competition can readily find a new home in other parties. This party structure, to some extent, weakens party institutionalization but simultaneously helps facilitate political compromises.

Jokowi and his network have adeptly harnessed this open party structure to advance their political agenda, especially concerning the upcoming 2024 election, by maintaining control over public support and legitimacy. There are parties that Jokowi and his network have infiltrated in order to secure important positions. Medium and small parties appear receptive to such infiltration because they perceive a mutually beneficial relationship: namely, an opportunity to tap into Jokowi’s vast public support to bolster their own electoral prospects in 2024.

The recent maneuver, that garnered national and international attention, was the nomination of Jokowi’s eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as Prabowo’s vice presidential running mate. It is possible that one party in Prabowo’s coalition might consider accepting Gibran as a member, given that his candidacy could potentially cause tension between him and Jokowi’s current party, PDIP, which supports another candidate, Ganjar Pranowo. The announcement came not long after Gibran’s younger brother, Kaesang Pangarep, was appointed as the chairman of PSI (Partai Solidaritas Indonesia), a non-parliamentary party that identifies itself as the voice of the youth generation.

While some may view this as a straightforward attempt to build a political dynasty, I argue that its viability should also be considered in the context of the party structure and the interests of those within the party, which facilitate such occurrences, a phenomenon not limited to a single party.

Should We Expect Political change?

As the February 14 election approaches, the prospect of political change looms large in the minds of many. However, expecting a dramatic shift solely because Jokowi’s second and final term is coming to an end is somewhat wishful thinking for three key reasons. Firstly, the absence of clear policy distinctions among parties means that power-sharing and patronage relationships among elites will continue regardless of who assumes the presidency. The lack of well-defined agendas blurs party lines, emphasizing the enduring importance of informal power dynamics.

Secondly, party elites will continue to vie for access to state resources. Those who have benefited from these resources will strive to maintain their positions, irrespective of the election’s outcome. Winners who secure power will likely manage elite competition by extending a helping hand to the losers to some extent. This cooperative approach is evident in the formation of anticipated coalitions for the presidential election, where parties are not grouped by ideology or policy positions but rather driven by pragmatic calculations. There is a shared belief among these elites that winning together is mutually beneficial, and that vehement contention is counterproductive. Consequently, minimizing conflicts will take precedence, thereby sustaining the patronage system.

Lastly, change can only take place incrementally and largely hinges on the agency of the top executive leaders. Under Jokowi’s administration, it has been evident that maintaining elite cohesion leads to stability, despite the associated costs. It appears that the next president will likely follow a similar playbook.

All of these factors underline the price that Indonesia must pay in order to maintain its continued stability.

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