By David Fettling
Haris Azhar thinks both Indonesia’s presidential candidates are incompetent, that the issues they debate are nonsense, that both seek to protect the status quo.
“Ada persoalan lain yang jauh lebih penting”, other issues are far more important than those they discuss, he says, and lists them — human rights, rule of law, social justice, environmental destruction.
But: “kita punya kapasitas”, we have the capacity to determine other paths, he says. “Kita akan membangun politik alternatif” — we will build an alternative politics for Indonesia.
Azhar, a human rights activist, wants Indonesians to golput — to refuse to vote for either Prabowo Subianto, a former Suharto general, or incumbent President Joko Widodo, who has made a series of concessions to both the existing political elite and conservative xenophobes.
Azhar says a strong golput vote will send a message to Indonesia’s politicians about how many people are waiting for a bigger, bolder politics to create a more just society.
A growing number of Indonesians plan to do just this — to golput not from apathy, but to express disappointment at the political values and visions offered in the 2019 election.
Mass movement to boycott the vote
Golputers are typically young, urban and educated.
Members of Indonesia’s civil society — activists, journalists, academics, NGO workers — are prominent advocates.
Many golputers are former supporters of Jokowi and ex-Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or “Ahok” — people whose hopes for change were dashed by Ahok’s fall then Jokowi’s capitulations.
Most provocative for them was Jokowi’s selection of intolerant cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running-mate.
How powerful are they?
Their number is unclear — while 30 per cent of Indonesians are predicted to golput, that figure doesn’t measure those abstaining from political convictions rather than indifference.
But Jokowi appears to have underestimated the ability of disgruntled progressives to erode his political base; being young and networked gives golputers disproportionate social influence.
Golput is progressive Indonesia saying it cannot be taken for granted.
Some golputers emphasise lack of LGBT rights, others politicians’ wavering commitments to racial and religious pluralism and encouragement of “primordial sentiments”.
Many focus on the political system itself, its incestuous, self-interested networks of politicians and businesspeople and lack of genuine ideological competition.
Golputers are also imagining a different Indonesia.
Alghiffari Aqsa, of the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute, advocates golput together with reform proposals — Indonesian voters being able to recall politicians, citizens’ petitions with the power to create laws like in Switzerland. While Indonesians should “forget” the 2019 election, he thinks now is nonetheless a “golden moment” to push for transformative change.
Criticism of golput, another golputer has revealingly said, comes from a “poverty of political imagination”.
On social media golputers demonstrate contempt for political mediocrity, broken promises and opportunism; their voices are insubordinate, sarcasm-laced.
On Twitter Haris Azhar addresses politicians directly, contradicting their claims and asking uncomfortable questions. ‘[H]alo Pak Jokowi’, he tweeted the President recently, and asked why Indonesia’s leader refused to meet exploited mine workers.
When another politician declared a need for integrity in law enforcement, Azhar asked: ‘[i]ncluding [for people]… pursuing cases of human rights violations by retired generals?’
Azhar uses Twitter to raise issues the candidates want to ignore, from an unpunished attack on an anti-corruption investigator to environmental policy.
Growing disconnect between politicians and voters
Indonesia’s election is providing other evidence of Indonesian disaffection with their political class.
Widespread frustration at a substance-light first presidential debate compelled a change in format for subsequent debates. Indonesians have chafed at politicians’ suggestions they should vote based on their profession or membership of religious organisations.
Indonesia’s golput movement and other political discontents reveal the limitations of long-held Australian ideas about Indonesia — ideas that have long shaped, and constrained, Australia’s engagement.
For decades Australians have viewed Indonesia’s people as homogenous
and, in Max Lane’s words, ‘hopelessly authoritarian’.
Such a perception has encouraged a narrow focus on Indonesia’s political leaders, seen as guarantors of ‘stability’.
Australia’s view of Indonesia needs an update
From communism to terrorism, Indonesian leaders’ chief task, in Australian eyes, has been to obstruct undesirable currents welling from Indonesian society.
Maria Catarina Sumarsih, mother of a university student killed by security forces in 1998, member of the Kamisan movement which seeks justice for such murders, will also golput.
Jokowi met Kamisan a single time, and did not follow it with any meaningful action.
Sumarsih thinks golput will be “a political education” for politicians, a demonstration that Indonesians are “not easily tricked” and that what is most important are basic values of humanity.
Golputers are determined to use democracy to ballast individual empowerment and dignity.
“It took me years to… know I am worthy,” Amahl Azwar, who is gay, has said. “I will not jeopardise that by voting for someone who wants to outlaw LGBT people.”
Golputers are also defending an idea of a national community united not through any unquestioning deference, but by civic values and mutual respect — they are rejecting candidates who, in one activist’s words, foment “sharpened inter-religious conflict and… intolerance”.
Haris Azhar sees golput as an act of critical analysis: above all people should not “membeo”, or parrot, conventional wisdom.
None of this means Indonesia is headed to a liberal-progressive future — much grassroots dissent is religious-conservative. But it shows Indonesia’s heterogeneity, and the determination of countless Indonesian individuals and groups to shape their nation’s future.
Will the golput movement be successful?
Whether Indonesia moves toward greater religious tolerance and liberal democracy or towards xenophobia and autocracy will — as in any country — be primarily decided not by any president, but by the manifold currents within Indonesian society.
The spectacle of golput might inspire Australian engagement with Indonesia to focus on bottom-up movements as much as government elites — the balance has been on the latter.
Indonesian civil society and NGOs are not only appropriate recipients for boosted funding, fellowships and other support, but also bodies Australia’s government and civil society might partner with on issues from climate change to interreligious tolerance.
It might also inspire a shift in basic Australian perceptions of Indonesia.
Future diplomatic spats between Canberra and Jakarta will be better-managed if Australians see Indonesians in all their diversity, understand that Indonesia is bigger than any single political current as much as America is bigger than Trumpism.
There’s another Indonesia than the one Australians know — dissenting, progressive, fighting racism, corruption, patriarchy and ecological destruction. It deserves more attention, inside and outside Indonesia.
David Fettling is the author of Encounters with Asian Decolonisation.