Why are populist figures in Indonesia being challenged to operate in a corrupt political system? This is a critical question prior to the legislative and presidential elections, and the issue concerns Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini. Nationally, both figures have good, clean reputations, yet they have to face unyielding challenges, namely from oligarchs and elites.
The “corrupt political system” refers to a political system dominated and abused by a few powerful people or groups for their own interests. These people are oligarchs and members of the elite. Elites are certain people or groups who have highly concentrated coercive power, “mobilisational” power and official or party positions, distributed in a highly exclusive way. In contrast, as the political scholar Jeffrey Winters writes, oligarchs are those with significant fortunes accumulated from economic wealth.
Both elites and oligarchs can have similar interests in inhibiting potential challenges or radical demands that threaten them. They can form a collective action such as a political party. In the case of Jokowi, the party has “detained” him to meet public demand. Similarly, in Risma’s case, it is not only the local legislative council, but also her own party that has been dominated by businesspeople and party elites who resist her populist policies.
Jokowi has been performing well in managing Indonesia’s most populated city; for example, he battled the government regarding the cheap car policy, preferring to improve public transportation. Jokowi has rejected Vice President Boediono’s idea of selling “low-cost green cars” to Jakarta’s residents.
It was widely believed that automobile business groups were behind this proposal, targeting Indonesia as a potential market for low-price cars.
Above all, the public is looking forward to knowing whether Jokowi will run as the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle’s (PDI-P) presidential candidate. The decision is in the hands of PDI-P chairperson Megawati Soekarnoputri. Apparently, Megawati has not given up on the idea of her third bid as the party’s candidate, even though that option is unlikely to increase her party’s odds of winning the election.
In the case of Risma, the collaboration between party elites and oligarchs in the legislative council was a significant challenge to her public service policies. In particular, as reported by the weekly magazine Tempo, three issues have prompted Risma to step down as Surabaya’s mayor.
First, the battle over the construction of a toll road across Surabaya, in which Risma favored improving the city’s public transportation. Second, following this, Surabaya’s city council — supported by the PDI-P — attempted to oust her, but failed. The rejection of Risma by the PDI-P and its oligarchic component continued, when she wanted to raise the billboard advertising tax.
In these two cases, the shared interest of business people and political elites was the obvious motivation behind the resistance to Risma’s ideas. And third, the “punch” against Risma was the covert appointment of PDI-P’s local head and deputy speaker of the city council, Wisnu Sakti Buana, as the new deputy mayor — a move that Risma believed was another attempt to topple her.
Thus, populist figures have been captured by the corrupt political system. On the one hand, they are personality-based figures, who differ from mass “mobilisational” figures, such as Lula Da Silva and Evo Morales in Latin America. Da Silva and Morales were able to transform their societal support into populist parties. Accordingly, they received full support to implement populist policies without strong resistance from parliament or their own parties.
Yet Jokowi and Risma are also elites, since they received official positions. These two prominent leaders emerged from the middle class. Jokowi was a carpenter-turned-politician and Risma was a true-blue bureaucrat. They had no mass political mobilisation to challenge established political elites and oligarchs.
The only option they had was to enter a well-established political party, namely the PDI-P, to be eligible to run for governmental positions.
There is a huge gap between elite and grassroots levels in terms of building strong political influence. In Indonesia’s modern history, the banned Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was widely known for its intimate relationship with the grassroots movement. The masses could be mobilized to support certain party policies, whether in favour of or against the government. However, since Soeharto took over the government in 1966, Indonesian society has been distanced from politics.
The concept of a “floating mass” was widely disseminated by Ali Murtopo, Soeharto’s right-hand man; it meant that people would not play any political roles or organise any political movements and therefore would devote all their efforts to economic development. Since then, no populist figures have arisen from a grassroots level.
What we are seeing today are politicians emerging from the middle class. On the one hand, the emergence of populist figures is the result of a deficient political system, creating conditions that are ripe for populism.
On the other hand, these figures have no political-based organisations that can continually draw support from society to impose populist policies. They must frequently abide by the party’s rules. Occasionally, pro-people policies are at odds with party interests.
In this regard, populist policies have to fall in line with the party’s instruction. So far, the case of Risma has illustrated this pattern clearly.
Furthermore, populist figures in a corrupt political system risk being used by other political parties. Certain parties, such as the National Mandate Party (PAN), the Democratic Party and the Golkar Party have expressed interest in making Jokowi their own candidate.
However, these moves were blocked by the PDI-P. Similarly, if Risma quits as mayor, the Gerinda Party, Golkar and even the Democrats are willing to put her forward as a strong running mate. For these parties, Jokowi and Risma are vote magnets.
This is a very pragmatic reason to recruit them, but it does not guarantee that, in the future, party elites will not continue to threaten the performance of these two leading populist figures. – The Jakarta Post, March 6, 2014.
*Hipolitus Yolisandry Ringgi Wangge is a visiting scholar in the equality development and globalisation studies program at the Buffet Center for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern University.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.