In the morning of 21 May 2019, one day early, the Indonesian General Elections Committee (KPU) announced the results of the presidential elections held on 17 April: 55.5 per cent voted for incumbent Jokowi, and 44.5 per cent for his adversary, retired general Prabowo. This was more-or-less as expected, after the post-election quick count had come up with roughly similar results. Prabowo has remained defiant all through the process, confident that he had actually won the elections. Ultimately on 24 May he followed the correct legal route and filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court, demanding that the election results be declared invalid due to widespread fraud. The Elections Supervisory Unit (Bawaslu) had already declared the 73,000 reports of fraud unsubstantiated as they are mostly based on online media reports; it is likely the Constitutional Court will uphold the validity of the KPU results.1 These elections were the most complicated in Indonesia’s history, combining presidential, parliamentary and regional elections in the huge archipelago. Thousands of volunteers were involved, of whom 500 people died in the process and some 11.000 fell ill during or after the vote counting.

But before the retired general lodged his appeal, violent riots broke out; primarily in Jakarta, but there were also reports of unrest in Balikpapan and Madura. Eight people were confirmed dead (on social media the names of 16 victims circulated), 730 people were wounded, hundreds of others were arrested and cars, a police station and kiosks were burned.2 The move of the KPU to predate its final announcement had not been able to avoid the disturbances, which had long been announced. Prabowo himself had called for peaceful rallies, but many of his followers, convinced that they have been cheated of the opportunity to have their hero (some call him messiah) elected President, came from all over Java to protest. The 32,000 police deployed, who had promised not to use live ammunition, reacted with great violence (as demonstrated by a video of police violence that went viral). The autopsies of the dead are not yet made public, but the protesters claim some of the wounds were caused by police bullets, while the police insists some protesters suffered knife wounds and others were shot by bullets from arms wielded by provocateurs. Also, journalists were targeted by police.

Indonesia 2019 presidential election demonstation FORSEA_

Jakarta, Indonesia – May 22, 2019: Demonstration on the results of the 2019 presidential election near the Bawaslu office, Thamrin, Jakarta, Indonesia. Image: ardiwebs /

Even before the rallies took place, the police had made some arrests. Apparently several actors had deemed this an excellent occasion to spread terror or otherwise advance a violent agenda. Early May already some 70 people had been arrested, some of whom were in possession of explosives. Many of these were returnees from Syria, associated with Islamic State (IS) or the home grown terrorist group JAD, Jamaah Anshalut Daulad. This group is an offspring of Indonesia’s largest ever terrorist organization, Darul Islam, which called for an Indonesian State and wreaked havoc in West Java and other regions in the late 1950s, and is responsible for some 22.000 deaths. Allegedly the prisoners targeted various prominent members of the security apparatus. Other people arrested include retired general Soenarko, in relation to his illegal procurement of weapons and a call for violence that went viral. 3 The aggressive retired General Kivlan Zein was also named a suspect of treason.

Members of another right wing group, the IS-linked Islamic Reform Movement Garis, were also among those detained. Plus those associated with the discovery of an ambulance with the logo of Prabowo’s party, Gerindra, which was filled with stones, apparently to be used during the riots.  4 Some of those arrested still had the envelopes with the money paid out to them unopened in their pockets – members of the unemployed mobs-for-hire. Thus the police identified four culprits, consisting of rogue elements in the armed forces and right wing Muslim groups. So far they have not yet released the names of the alleged masterminds (apart from Soenarko) or funders. Inter-army rivalry (and tensions between the police and the army) and Muslim terrorist groups have throughout Indonesian history been responsible for the majority of terrorism or (state) violence.

Joko Widodo official potrait, provided by the Government of Indonesia

Joko Widodo official potrait, provided by the Government of Indonesia. Image |Wikipedia Commons

Yet these are not the culprits that army leaders have identified over the past few years as enemies of the state. Army rhetoric has consistently warned for the so called ‘proxy wars’ that the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) and the LGBT community supposedly were planning against the Indonesian nation.5 Ludicrous as these accusations might seem, the hate campaigns against the octogenarian survivors of the 1965 genocide and the LGBT community have led to great suffering, for cynical political ends. It is hoped that re-elected President Jokowi realizes his debt to these communities. For though he promised to uphold human rights and to deal with Indonesia’s past human rights violations he did nothing of the sort and allowed the hate mongers to spread their abject lies and to exploit identity politics. By upholding the impunity of the perpetrators and by withholding protection from the harassed communities (this also includes religious minorities) he can be held partially accountable for their suffering.

Paradoxically the President himself fell victim to the hoaxes he did nothing to stop when they affected survivor communities. Throughout the presidential campaign he has been associated with the PKI. During the riots the protesters were incited to fight against the police, which is widely understood to support Jokowi and messages were spread to stir up hatred against the President.

Just one example of such a hoax: on ’12 Ramadhan 1440’ a WA message went viral signed by somebody calling himself Hadji Ibnu Buang who opined that these elections were not a ‘celebration of democracy but a conspiracy of the Jokowi regime to abolish the Indonesian state and the state philosophy Pancasila.’ In condensed form his arguments amount to the following:

“This is a coup by the PKI, who are hiding behind the elections. The Jokowi regime is only interested in keeping their power. But the problem is that the PKI is behind all this, so that the result is that we leave the state and the Pancasila in the hands of local communists and China. And what will happen when the communists are in power? Religion will be eradicated, Islam will be annihilated, human rights will be abolished. Our heroes will be chased, imprisoned, tortured. The mosques will be closed, the quran prohibited. We will become slaves in our own country, the wealth of our nation will be spent in China. Jokowi and the PKI are traitors of our nation who have stolen the victory from Prabowo. Those in the army with combatant skills should fight now against the supporters of Jokowi. They must be captured or shot. And if you don’t fulfil this holy task, give your weapons to the Muslim Youth who are ready to do their duty. We can only choose between living a noble life or dying as a martyr.”

This Muslim right wing rhetoric sounds all too familiar. The own group is victimized (while actually PKI members were murdered, detained and tortured, after 1 October 1965, with the active support of Muslim militias). And fear and hatred is spread – based on communist phobia and xenophobia.

The polarization of Indonesian society runs via the intersecting lines of geography, religion, history and ethnicity. Majoritarian groups, such as the Javanese, or Muslims, dominate the minorities. The regions which rebelled against the centralist economic policies of Indonesia’s first President Sukarno, generally voted for Prabowo (whose father, the brilliant anti-communist economist Sumitro Djojohadikusumo was a driving force behind the regional rebels). Prabowo won Banten, West Java, and West Sumatera, regions known for their history of revolt by hardliner Muslim groups, and sharia-dominated Aceh. Close allies of his, such as Kivlan Zein and Fadli Zon, have links with the former rebel groups. He depended on the militant support of the 212 movement, which organized the mass protests that brought the popular Christian Chinese governor of Jakarta to jail.

Both sides exploited the electoral divide. The Jokowi camp created an atmosphere as if their adversaries were preparing for a coup. The supporters of General Prabowo used the arrests of radical clerics to strengthen the idea that Islam was under attack.

FORSEA Indonesia map

Central and East Java voted in majority for the Javanese Jokowi. He also received the majority of the votes of non-Muslim-dominated regions. 6 The votes of the moderate Muslim mass organization NU were divided, with more than half voting for Jokowi. Although most of the fundamentalist Muslim groups voted for Prabowo, this does not mean that they are united. The three most important groups, the (prohibited) HTI (Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia) which wants to establish a caliphate, the Islamist party PKS (Partai Keadilan Sosial, Social Justice Party) and the aggressive militia FPI (Forum Pembela Islam, Muslim Defenders’ Forum) call each other kafir. The army is divided as well, with 108 retired generals supporting Prabowo, while the notorious human rights offenders General Wiranto and Hendropriyono are the bullies behind Jokowi.

Particularly Wiranto monitors all speech acts which he considers violations of the law to suppress their political adversaries. During the demonstrations the use of social media was limited. The accusations that adversaries of Jokowi perpetrate high treason (makar) is readily made and several outspoken allies of Prabowo have been arrested, based on draconian laws such the Blasphemy Law, the 2008 Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law and a wide interpretation of the anti-subversion clause (Article 107) of the Criminal Code. Among those arrested are popular singer Ahmad Dhani. Wiranto even established his own security team which reminds one of the notorious Kopkamtib organization, the New Order security apparatus responsible for most of the human rights violations. He threatened to close down newspapers.

Indonesia has become an illiberal democracy in which dissent is restricted. Human rights defenders have protested in vain against the erosion of the constitutional basic human rights, criticising for instance the disbandment of the HTI; they are now protesting police violence and the curbing of civil rights.

At stake is the characterisation of Indonesia’s democracy. Though the Constitution is secular and contains guarantees for the adherence to human rights, in practice these human rights are circumscribed by an emphasis on the first clause of the Pancasila, the Preamble to the Constitution, which stipulates that Indonesia adheres to the Belief in One God (ignoring that it has a sizeable polytheistic Hindu minority). The other pillars of the Pancasila refer to democracy and social justice, but these are downplayed by Muslim right wing groups, as well as by the army. Since its promulgation there has been debate on the interpretation of the Pancasila. Initially fundamentalist Muslim groups rejected the Pancasila; they wanted a state based on sharia law. The nationalist and communist groups have always firmly supported the formulation of the Pancasila.

At present the PKI is framed as having always rejected the Pancasila (which is a lie), while fundamentalist Muslim groups are portrayed as having always supported it. Yet even now their support is half-hearted, as many prefer a sharia-based legal system. Ma’ruf Amin, the newly elected Vice President, has actively been campaigning for a sharia-based economy when he was still chair of the influential MUI (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, Indonesian Muslim Scholars’ Council). A sharia-based economy ultimately needs a sharia-based legal system and a sharia-based morality, with all its attendant restrictions for women and the LGBT community.

The campaign for the incorporation of Islamist moral and legal values into society started during the 32-year rule of the military dictator General Suharto. It accelerated during and after the debates in the Senate on amendments to the Constitution in 2002, in which fundamentalist Muslim were defeated. More recently it got an enormous boost with the 2017 anti-Ahok demonstrations. One of the architects of the campaign to imprison Ahok was Ma’ruf. The new VP is thus one of the driving forces of the Muslim majoritarian identity-based politics, which was the major reason why Jokowi invited him to this position.7

Thus both sides of the political spectrum wooed the Muslim vote. Amien Rais, chair of the fundamentalist party PAN is often called the Sengkuni of Prabowo, after the cunning advisor of a king in the popular wayang play, who is always full of dirty tricks. He came up with the call to people’s power, which would challenge the ‘unfair’ election results. Since Wiranto threatened that calls for people power might result in a charge of high treason, Amien Rais has scaled down his rhetoric and renamed his faction the ‘people’s sovereignty movement’. A PAN politician, Eggy Sudjana, has been detained, charged with inciting people to commit treason.8

While debate are raging on the causes of the deaths of those 8 (or 16) demonstrators (was it police violence or provocateurs?) several lessons can be learned for the elections. For the good of the nation it is important that the polarization in society is tackled from above, as political leaders fuelled this. But this does not solve other major issues. A problem is the parliamentary threshold, which effectively bars new political voices from getting a seat in parliament, as happened to the small progressive party PSI Partai Solidaritas Indonesia, Indonesian Solidarity Party) The Islamization of society which started from fringe groups in the 1980s has now advanced to such an extent that radical Islam has become mainstream. With Ma’ruf as Vice-President on one side of the political spectrum and hardline Islamist groups dominating the other half of the electorate, moderate Muslim voices have become a minority group. Social issues hardly played a role in the campaign; it is expected that Jokowi will continue his development drive, heavily investing in infrastructure.9 Possible only the rising level of the national debt will constrain him. The rampant destruction of the environment never featured either. For example thousands of coal concessions are being shared out among the country’s elite, without any concern for environmental destruction or the livelihood of the people who live on those lands.10 Indonesia is seriously lacking behind on policies related to renewable energy.


Poster banner: women’s march in Jakarta, 2018. Image: kiwiofmischief /

Progress in health care is slow, with the high Maternal Mortality Rate as a national shame. Every year some 20.000 women die as a result of complications around child birth – a figure many times higher than the total death toll of the regular natural disasters that befall the country. The share of women in parliament shows a slight increase, from 17 to 20.5 per cent.11 It is hoped that there are some gender specialists among them who might be able to control the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. The disappointing performance of this Ministry is becoming embarrassing; it did not even produce the regular report for the Commission on the Status of Women and it has allowed the country to slide backwards in relation to women’s rights.12 The Ministry nor the National Population and Family Planning Board which is incorporated in it, deploy a discourse on women’s right and gender equality. Instead they promote women’s traditional role and even blame women for domestic violence, as they apparently have not been able to maintain the ‘harmony’ in the household.13

Equally worrying is the state of Indonesia’s educational sector.14 Not only are general educational standards low, but the universities also do not pay enough attention to building up a critical mass of students who are able to develop a vision for Indonesia’s future. The humanities and political sciences are neglected.

Human, women’s and sexual rights defenders have fared particularly poorly in the past campaign. Not only has it become clear that they are a negligible electoral factor, they have also allowed themselves to be bitterly divided. Instead of becoming a moral force, building common platforms based on the diversity of views they hold and telling truth to power, they slipped into sectarian infighting. It had already become clear that President Jokowi had betrayed his promises to deal with past human rights issues, yet many of his old supporters, the so called tadpoles (cebong) kept fighting for him. Not so much under the illusion that they might influence his agenda this time, but more to thwart the supporters of General Prabowo, commonly dubbed bats (kampret). Thus divided the human rights movement engineered its own weakness. Already under fire by right wing groups as defenders of the PKI and the LGBT community, they were unable to make a fist and demand that their interests be integrated in party platforms.

It is high time the human rights movement lives up to the foundational motto of the Indonesian state, unity in diversity. If they want to have some influence in this rough political climate they need to strengthen civil society – by building coalitions based on affinity. Bridges need to be built across the divides, without obliterating each other’s specific concerns. You don’t have to agree with a group on all its policies to be able to work towards a goal both groups share. Instead differences can be celebrated, amalgamating the power of the different communities. Moderate religious groups can come together with various persecuted minority communities and hammer out common issues with different groups of human rights defenders.

While the nation is waiting for Prabowo to concede his defeat or for the judgement of the Constitutional Court, human rights activists and other civil society actors better focus on consolidating their movement and preparing for widening their influence. In the present Parliament no party is represented that takes human rights seriously. The small progressive Indonesian Solidarity Party did not pass the electoral threshold. Fundamentalist Islamic groups managed to penetrate mainstream parties and organizations due to their hard work since the mid-1980s. Activists can learn from their example and try to strengthen grassroots movements, to force political parties to listen to them. For that human rights activists must unlearn self-righteous sectarian politics, defuse the toxic power of identity politics and build rainbow coalitions, which incorporate different interests and viewpoints.

Saskia E. Wieringa

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect FORSEA’s editorial stance.

Banner | Jakarta, Indonesia – May 22, 2019: Female police guard in demonstrations on the results of the 2019 presidential election near the Bawaslu office, Thamrin, Jakarta, Indonesia. Image Shutterstock

    Who was behind Jakarta riots?
  5. See Saskia E. Wieringa (2019) Is the recent wave of homophobia unexpected? In Greg Fealy and Ronit Ricci eds. and Canberra: ANU Update Series; and Saskia E. Wieringa and Nursyahbani Katjasungkana (2018) Propaganda and the genocide in Indonesia: Imagined evil. New York: Routledge
  6. See
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  10. See also
  12. For an analysis of the performance of the Womens Ministry: Saskia E. Wieringa (2015) Gender harmony and the happy family; Islam, gender and sexuality in post-reformasi Indonesia. Journal of South East Asian Research. 23(1), 5–27.
  13.; see also
Saskia E. Wieringa

Posted by Saskia E. Wieringa